Messages

At pivotal moments in my life, I've often noted the presence of birds.

When I crossed the threshold into a greater awareness around the age of 8, I was startled by a bird calling out in the night. The sound had scared me so much that I stopped breathing for some time and was taken to the hospital. Also, the bird wasn't actually there.

For years after that night, I despised birds. I was embarrassed and confused by what had happened, so I blamed all birds. Thankfully, in the time since the first bird's call, I have stopped fearing their messages. Now I welcome them and see them as a chance to shut out the mental chatter, be still, and listen to something I might have been missing.


These are a few of the stories I have of birds as symbols:

A few years ago, I had a vision of an eagle's open beak in meditation. The head of a turtle fit perfectly within the beak. It was a strange image, but I have loved turtles ever since I read the Grapes of Wrath. It was my first experience with symbolism in literature. When I understood the meaning the turtle held in the story, a veil was lifted from my eyes. I started seeing the deeper significance in books and in life all around me. 

I felt the turtle represented the grounded, slow, and purposeful parts of me, and the eagle was the side of me I had just discovered--untethered, able to see from a grander perspective, graceful, and masterful. I held onto the eagle/turtle image, feeling as though its meaning would deepen in time.

***

When I decided to reach out and make peace with a close family member after years of no communication, I found doves nesting in the flowers on my front porch a moment later.


***

Soon after that, I visited a bird sanctuary on a short day trip. I did not expect to become obsessed with raptors but being that close to magnificent hawks, eagles, owls, and falcons made me want to learn more about them. I went home and began a novel that starts and ends in a bird sanctuary.


***

Walking into a hospital, fighting a fear of enclosed spaces, large machines whirring around my head, and medical procedures, I looked off into the trees across from the building. Two hawks were standing sentinel on the tree tops as if to say, "You're safe. You're not alone."


***

One morning in meditation I was awash in gratitude. The only sound was my breath and my whisper: Sa Ta Na Ma. My spine was straight, my eyes were closed and focused on the point where the metaphorical third eye sits in the center of my forehead. Interrupting the near silence, a flock of geese honked in their off-key inharmonious way and flew over the house.

I smiled and was struck by the sense that I had been given another message.

In the discordant honking I heard:

I am to prepare for a change of course. I should know that my family is devoted and I am never alone.

I finished chanting Sa Ta Na Ma, the mantra meaning Birth, Life, Death, Rebirth until I took one more purposeful, profound breath.

***


I often write posts that sit in my queue for weeks and get deleted. These ghost posts are certainly therapeutic, but not always meant to share publicly, and not always appealing to other people.

As I lifted my keys off the keyboard after finishing the post above, I walked to the door to investigate a harsh cawing sound in my backyard. Three crows were hopping around and swooping through the air frantically. I heard the alarm call of another smaller bird, too. I've learned that these calls usually mean a larger predator is lurking.

Then I spotted him. A hawk soared into the yard and landed on the lowest branch of my favorite tree. He lifted off again, came to rest on the ground at the base of the tree, and began tearing at something with its beak. 


A Lovely Red-Tailed Hawk
(Not my red-tailed hawk. My photos didn't do him justice.)

It would rip, gulp, and swivel its head to look out for thieves. I watched in reverence until I made a break for my camera. He guarded and ate his prey, letting me photograph him and step closer all the while.

He was aware of my presence. I know he saw me. Perhaps he sensed I was in awe and just wanted to share a little of his magic.

When he was good and finished he spread his wings and took flight into a nearby tree. I snapped a few more pictures and watched him navigate the trees and houses until he reached the open sky.

I felt touched by the divine in a unique way. An animal I revere flew right into my yard to visit and let me admire him for just a little while.

The delight and wonder of the encounter would have been enough. But beyond that, I saw it as a reminder to be in the moment. I can see more of my surroundings if I open my eyes and decide to look. So much of life can pass us by if we run through it blindly. 

2017 Scene & Story #1

There is always something new to learn, another fresh way to stretch the mind. Each book on my shelf marks a leap forward.



When I was twelve, the earth moved under my feet. My family was moving, again. From mild winters to lake-effect snow. From evangelicals to big city liberals. From innocence to painful growth.

At the same time, I was required to take my first French class. My teacher was a jubilant natural beauty with European flair. She loved making new sounds with her rounded lips and delighting us with unique parts of French culture. I had never known such a happy adult.

I dove into the deep end of French that year. Absorbing every little tidbit I could find, I wore my French vocabulary like a luxurious fur coat. I didn’t have to be the naïve hillbilly with a funny accent. I could be Rachelle.

I imitated the cassettes until I was Rachelle nearly all the time. The phrase Écoutez et Répétez gave me a little frisson. Those seductive melodic phrases were a portal through which I dreamed of bigger things for myself.

Then we moved again. Since I had begun French earlier than my high school peers, I was able to look down my nose slightly at all the pauvre students who were stumbling over simple verb conjugations. I was outwardly humble and volunteered to tutor when asked, but inside I loved having that edge.

I may have felt alone, unmoored, and deeply lost, but I always had le français. Rachel suffered from undiagnosed severe depression mixed with manic episodes. Rachelle was smooth and urbane, untroubled by petty high school drama.

Rachel tried to commit suicide. Rachelle applied to the American University in Paris.

The two merged when reality showed me that I was actually going to a small Midwestern university. I majored in French for four more years, studied in Belgium for a semester, and returned to earn a Master’s degree in French literature and linguistics.

Finally, I became the French teacher. It was wondrous. I even had the same curly stacked hair and enthusiastic smile that my first teacher had. I was living my truth, passing on my love for French to other middle-schoolers.

After just a few years, Rachel was feeling somewhat lost and began to knock around inside my head so much that I was forced to quit my job and stare my depression in the face without blinking.

Rachel got married, had a baby, moved again, and then had two more babies. Each time her depression came it excavated a little more of le français that Rachelle had carefully mounded on top of her ego.

Rachel, now a married mother of three, a long way from being the French teacher, was in danger of committing suicide. Rachel and Rachelle were no longer. There was only depression.

I found honesty, a doctor, a therapist, medication, meditation, acceptance, supportive friends, a better diet, running, and every scrap of anything that would help me escape the terrible place I was.

That was seven years ago. Since that arduous “leveling out” period, I have slipped and stumbled, but I am always finding a new passion to coax me out of the dark. Writing, spirituality, yoga, crochet, raptors, tarot, any other language, and most recently photography, have each played a role in growing my light in the last few years.

At Christmas, a family member asked, “Do you think you’ll ever use your French again?” I knew that he meant to ask if I would get a teaching job.

I said, “Maybe!”

Then I smiled and thought, French has given me the blueprint for overcoming the worst life has to offer. It taught me to refocus on something artful and enriching. It taught me to step on depression’s neck and hold it down with the pointed heel of my red leather boots. I use it every single day.


Two of my friends are hosting a monthly Scene & Story Linkup through 2017. You'll notice their photographs show talent, experience, and an eye for beauty. I decided to throw mine in there anyway. Visit my friends Sarah at Paisley Rain Boots, and Lee at Sea Blue Lens.


Don't Give Up on Each Other

For a supposedly open-minded person, it turns out that I'm a very predictable human being, with a huge blind spot.

I love to hold up the sweetness of life no matter the circumstances. My focus is that biggest kind of love that some people call the divine. Yet, when it comes to the recent election, I, too, was reduced to angry thoughts and finger-pointing. I was surprised by my own righteous anger. I wondered why the guiding philosophy for my life failed me.

Why did I suddenly feel so sure that I was right and others were wrong? 

When I saw this book, I had to read it:

                                        Product Details


There is so much research and clarity in this book. If you don't want to read the rest of this post, simply know that Haidt says we villainize each other because we have different ideas of fairness. Each group sees their own idea of fairness as the only possible morality. To compromise, we'd need to appeal to each other's moral foundations. 

The passages I share below went a long way in healing a wound the election had created in me. I still have some hard lines that may never go away. 

They have little to do with the election and more to do with the stories I tell myself about my life and the world. They are the stories that hang on for dear life in my psyche no matter how much I meditate, over eat, run, or write.

After reading this book, I have to ask myself: How does hanging onto these stories serve me?

I rationally understand that I could let them go, but I haven’t yet. What does my subconscious mind believe the stories are protecting?

The visceral reactions I have to situations that bounce off these hard lines don’t make me feel tougher. I feel drained, in fact, and even weakened by the fight or flight response triggered in my body.

After reading The Righteous Mind, It's clear that I've attached my negative childhood experiences to Republicans, the South, Evangelicals, and the like. These attachments (whether or not they are deserved) feed my intuition. They make me feel punished, shamed, and belittled when I see a Trump sign in someone’s yard, as much as if that person were complicit in my childhood traumas. 

These underlying stories form the basis of the moral absolutes I use to confirm my righteousness as a Democrat and to judge anyone who isn’t.

Powerful.

I ask you now to get a cup of coffee, put your feet up, and come to these words prepared to be challenged. 


From The Righteous Mind:

When I was a teenager I wished for world peace, but now I yearn for a world in which competing ideologies are kept in balance, systems of accountability keep us all from getting away with too much, and fewer people believe that righteous ends justify violent means. Not a very romantic wish, but one we might actually achieve. (p. xx)

 As the eighth-century Chinese Zen master Sen-ts’an wrote:

The Perfect Way is only difficult
          for those who pick and choose;
Do not like, do not dislike;
all will then be clear.
Make a hairbreadth difference,
and Heaven and Earth are set apart;
If you want the truth to stand clear before you,
never be for or against.
The struggle between “for” and “against”is the mind’s worst disease. (p.  xxiii-xxiv) 


We do moral reasoning not to reconstruct the actual reasons why we ourselves came to a judgment; we reason to find the best possible reasons why somebody else ought to join us in our judgment. (p. 52) 

A dog’s tail wags to communicate. You can’t make a dog happy by forcibly wagging its tail. And you can’t change people’s minds by utterly refuting their arguments […]. If you want to change people’s minds, you’ve got to […] elicit new intuitions, not new rationales. (p. 56-57) 

Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide. (p. 58) 

If you ask people to believe in something that violates their intuitions, they will devote their efforts to finding an escape hatch—a reason to doubt your argument or conclusion. They will almost always succeed. (p. 59) 

People care a great deal more about appearance and reputation than about reality. (p. 86) 

Reasoning (and Google) Can Take You Wherever You Want to Go (p. 97) 

Westen found that partisans escaping from handcuffs (by thinking about the final slide, which restored their confidence in their candidate) got a little hit of that dopamine. And if this is true, then it would explain why extreme partisans are so stubborn, closed-minded, and committed to beliefs that often seem bizarre or paranoid. Like rats that cannot stop pressing a button, partisans may be simply unable to stop believing weird things. The partisan brain has been reinforced so many times for performing mental contortions that free it from unwanted beliefs. Extreme partisanship may be literally addictive. [Emphasis added.] (p. 103) 

Liberalism seemed so obviously ethical. Liberals marched for peace, workers’ rights, civil rights, and secularism. The Republican Party was (as we saw it) the party of war, big business, racism, and evangelical Christianity. I could not understand how any thinking person would voluntarily embrace the party of evil, and so I and my fellow liberals looked for psychological explanations of conservatism, but not liberalism. We supported liberal policies because we saw the world clearly and wanted to help people, but they supported conservative policies our of pure self-interest (lower my taxes!) or thinly veiled racism (stop funding welfare programs for minorities!). We never considered the possiblity that there were alternative moral worlds in which reducig harm (by helping victims) and increasing fairness (by pursuing group-based equality) were not the main goals. And if we could not imagine other moralities, then we could not believe that conservatives were as sincere in their moral beliefs as we were in ours. (p. 126)  

Our minds have the potential to become righteous about many diferent concerns, and only a few of these concerns are activated during childhood. (p. 128)

Moral matrices bind people together and blind them to coherence, or even existence, of other matrices. This makes it very difficult for people to consider the possiblity that there might really be more than one form of moral truth, or more than one valid framework for judging people or -running a society. (p. 129-130)

Virtues are social constructions. The virtues taught to children in a warror culture are different from those taught in a farming culture or a modern industrialized culture. There's always some overlap among lists, but even then, there are different shades of meaning. Buddha, Christ, and Muhammad all talked about compassion, but in rather different ways. (p. 142)

Everyone cares about fairness, but there are two major kinds. On the left, fariness often implies equality, but on the right in means propotionality--people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes. (p. 160-161)

Liberals score higher on measures of neophilia (also known as "openness to experience"), not just for new foods but also for new people, music, and ideas. Conservatives are higher on neophobia; they prefer to stick with what's tried and true, and they care a lot more about guarding borders, boundaries, and traditions. (p. 172)

Republicans understand moral psychology. Democrats don't. (p. 181)

...American left fails to understand social conservatives and the religious right because it cannot see a Durkheimian world as anything other than a moral abomination. (p. 193)

Anything that suggests the aggressive, controlling behavior of an alpha male (or female) can trigger this form of righteous anger, which is sometimes called reactance. (That's the feeling you get when an authority tells you you can't do something and you feel yourself wanting to do it even more strongly.) (p. 201)

We all recognize some forms of authority as legitimate in some contexts, but we are also wary of those who claim to be leaders unless they have first earned our trust. We're vigilant for sign that they've crossed the line into self-aggrandizement and tyranny. (p. 201)

Liberal moral matrices rest on the Care/harm, Liberty/oppression, and Fairness/cheating foundations, although liberals are often willing to trade away fariness (as proportionality) when it conflicts with compassion or with their desire to fight oppression. Conservative morality rests on all six foundations, although conservatives are more willing than liberals to sacrifice Care and let some people get hurt in order to achieve their many other moral -objectives. (p. 214)

Does religion make people good or bad? The New Atheists assert that religion is the root of most evil. They say it is a primary cause of war, genocide, terrorism, and the oppression of women. Religious believiers, for their part, often say that atheists are immoral, and that they can't be trusted. (p. 307)

Common sense would tell you that the more time and money people give to their religious groups, the less they have left over for everything else. But common sense turns out to be wrong. Putnam and Campbell found that the more frequently people attend religious services, the more generous and charitable they become across the board. Of course religious peeople give a lot to religious charities, but they also give as much as or more than secular folk to secular charities such as the American Cancer Society. They spend a lot of time in service to their churches and synagogues, but they also spend more time than secular folk serving in neighborhood and civic associations of all sorts. (p. 310)

The only thing that was reliably and powerfully associated with the moral benefits of religion was how emmeshed people were in relationships with their co-religionists. It's the friendships and group activities, carried out within a moral matrix that emphasize selflessness. That's what brings out the best in people. (p. 311)

Anything that binds people together into a moral matrix that glorifies the in-group while at the same time demonizing another group can lead to moralisitc killing, and many religions are well-suited for that task. Religion is therefore often an accessory to atrocity, rather than the driving force of the atrocity. (p. 312)

If you think about religion as a set of beliefs about supernatural agents, you're bound to misunderstand it.  You'll see those beliefs as foolish delusions, perhaps even as parasites that exploit our brains for their own benefit. But if you take a Durkheimian approach to religion (focusing on belonging) and a Darwinian approach to morality (involving multi-level selection), you get a very different picture. You see that religious practices have been binding our ancestors into groups for tens of thousads of years. That binding usually involves some blinding--once any person, book, or principle is declared sacred, then devotees can no longer question it or think clearly about it. (p. 317)



All this information hit me like a freight train. I came to the book wanting to understand myself, poke holes in my own beliefs, and understand others in the process. I believe it worked.

My 40-year-old narrative definitely tried to assert itself by asking: Am I just seeking the ultimate validation? Is my confirmation bias overruling my common sense? Am I looking for a reason not to despise Trump-supporters so I can carry on without my bleeding heart bleeding to death?

I can't be sure of the answers, but I know this book was worth reading. I see why my neighbors could have voted the way they did. They started with different genetic predispositions. They had childhoods that activated a different moral focus, and they've been telling themselves their own equally important life stories. 

I don't want to be an angry, paranoid person. I don't want to give up on the belief that we're all capable of good and worthy of joy. To do that, I need to see as clearly as I can. 



Looking for more?


Sam Harris tweeted a link to this study about why we're wired for stubbornness:


Maria Popova of Brainpickings.org wrote this article: