Losing and Finding Compassion

My political consciousness began to develop at age 13, when my middle school held a mock presidential election during the campaigns of George W. Bush and Al Gore.  Though it was a close race, if it had been up to the eighth graders at Barre Town Elementary and Middle School, Gore would have won.  The next fall, as I worried about braces, boys and being cool, two planes flew into the World Trade Center and began a cycle of fear that has fought to control the US political climate since.

Now, at 23, I am still learning the repercussions of 9/11, still trying to understand the massive shift it caused, still trying to comprehend the fear, hatred, and loss that has ensued as a result.  Because of both this act of terror and my country’s reactions, which have caused more terror, I have grown up in a time of fragmentation that would have us believe that conversation and compromise are for the weak, and the “other side” (whether it be republican or democrat or any religion that we are not) is inherently wrong or evil or both.

My personal experience holds a different truth.  Despite my encounters with division, more often I have found connection.

In the fall of 2006, when the newspapers were filled with threats of North Korea and battles in Iraq, I found peace in the Adirondack State Park’s Massawepie Lake and forest trails lined with red and white pine, tamarack, hemlock, maple, birch and spruce.  As a few people prepared for war in one place, a few more people prepared for ecology lessons in another.  When the weight of the media began to push me down with sorrow, I’d paddle into the middle of the lake and sit quietly, listening to the chickadees, squirrels, osprey and insects.  In these moments, there was no doubt that this part of the world was in harmony and kept alive by the interconnections of species.

Who is to say that war outweighs ecology?  Who is to say that violence and division trumps happiness and harmony?  Why must the news of our world be filled with the negative extreme?

Looking back at all the moments in my life that held confusion, anger and sadness, I see that the places I escaped to are what brought me back to peace.  I wonder how this world might be different if everyone had a place of wildness to retreat to with enough space to breathe clean air and hear the rhythms of nature.

When I was in Hobart, Tasmania last December, I saw the Dalai Lama speak.  The University of Tasmania hosted him, but the Chinese government prohibited the University from bestowing an honorary degree to the Dalai Lama, and since such a large population of its students are Chinese, the University complied.  When His Holiness sat in his chair on stage, he smiled and laughed, and to a group of 2,000 people this joyful being who lives in exile from his country said, “It is a very serious danger to lose compassion.”  What happens when we lose it ?  Hate, anger, and all those emotions that arise out of fear take hold and build walls to keep out any voice that may offer something different.

The news this week showed us what happens when one has lost compassion.  The shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, her staff, and bystanders is a consequence of extreme fear.  A commentator on the BBC World News Report on NPR said that this act of violence differs from those of the 1960s, a time of multiple political assassinations and violent riots, because the American people do not have a promise of hope to balance it out, like the promises of equality or money or jobs that the 1960s held.  This comment may weigh us down more.  I see hope.  I see hope for Giffords, for the families of the victims to heal, for the political climate to shift towards communication and bi-partisanship, for finding space to grieve and forgive, and for transforming fragmentation into connection.

In her book Finding Beauty In A Broken World, Terry Tempest Williams writes, “Social change depends on love.”  Let us look for love as we heal.  Let us change not with blame or fear, but with love and consideration.  This event offers us the chance to reunite our country as a community—not necessarily one that agrees on every bill passed by congress, but one that is willing to truly listen and communicate openly.  As the healing process begins, I offer this:

Standing quietly by ourselves may help us remember the sanctity of silence, the power of unity, and the strength of compassion in the midst of an ever-changing world.

Breaking Open

“The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe.  Your heart is that large.  Trust it.  Keep breathing.”  ~Joanna Macy

Just as my body has finally adjusted to the lengthening days and summer fruits, it is time for me to board a plane and fly back across the world.  The question that always arrives at endings swirls through my mind: where did the time go?  For the days themselves passed perfectly, not too slow or fast, and yet here I am wondering how 2 1/2 months can be over so quickly.    A week or two ago I thought, “okay, I am ready to be home,” and I filled with excitement at the vision of falling snow and a white Christmas.  But despite the readiness I had then, I feel a steadiness in where I am now.  Even though Christmas music plays in all the stores and resorts, the idea of a winter wonderland seems millions of miles away from the 80 degree temperature and warm aquamarine waters of Fiji.

I am preparing for reverse culture-shock.  Never before have I returned home uncertain of my next move.  Where will I work?  Where will I live?  But these questions are small compared to the ones I started this trip with: how do I move through loss?  How do I let go?

These answers don’t come quickly or easily, for the only way to find them is to live through each moment whether it bring sadness, distance, heaviness, aloneness, numbness, or anger.  Ignoring the waves of emotion that come with letting go only drowns one further in pain.  Bobbing along in the storm, however, has led me to discover caves I never knew, to enter them and find solace in their hollowed spaces, and to exit them to light my eyes upon the shifting colors of sunrises.

Thinking back to the middle of October, I see myself on the train to Christchurch.  I was listening to a playlist, dozing off and on as the wheels churned south along New Zealand’s east coast.  I woke up in the middle of a song to hear Ingrid Michaelson sing the lyrics “I am blind.  I cannot find the heart I gave to you,” and tears welled up in my eyes.  I turned my face to the window and wrote a note to Matt that I never sent:

Sometimes I can’t help but think I was supposed to do this trip with you.  And it catches me off guard.  I will be fine, smiling, happy, and then your memory enters me and I feel your arms, I see your eyes look at me with so much love.  And then it’s gone again and I wonder, How? When?

I find myself crying on a train.  Where are you?  When it starts to get hard, I tell myself: I left him.  But that’s not completely true.  We left each other.

I put my pen down then and let myself be lost until we arrived at the station.

This trip has been as much about finding myself again as it has been about letting go.  It is so easy to give up, gain jealousy, and blame another for everything that led to the break.  It is much harder to step back and see one’s own mistakes, and harder still to claim them, but that is what I had to do.  Now here I am.  I am broken open and I fly in the space I fell into.  Of course there are moments when the wind drops and my wings falter, but no longer am I pulled constantly down by a weight inside of me.  With the help of Erin and time, I see myself as love again, feel my body shake with laughter instead of tears, and grow anew in the space that expands inside of me.

How much effect does a place have on one’s growth?  Can I return to Vermont and remain detached from all I have shed on my journey?  The answers will come with the moment…

Sweet Darkness

Thanksgiving has come and with it a deeper look at all I have in my life.  Much of this trip has been about letting go of the loss that followed my breakup with my boyfriend of two years.  On the plane ride to New Zealand I wrote a poem called Sweet Darkness by David Whyte in my journal:

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.
When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.
Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.
There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.
The dark will be your womb
The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.
You must learn one thing:
the world was made to be free in.
Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.
I have returned to this poem many times since as I learn to expand instead of contract in the space of loss.  Darkness itself is a thing I have written and meditated on for over two years.  It often seems that we spend so much energy on light that we forget the truths the darkness holds, but when you sit in the night and let your eyes adjust you see it holds everything. 
There is a line in the Tao Te Ching, as translated by Steven Mitchell, that says:
Darkness within darkness
The gateway to all understanding
Something resonated deep inside me the first time I read these lines, though I really understood them for the first time this October when I visited the Waitomo Glowworm Caves.  The night before I had written in my journal: Universe, help me heal.  Help me let go.  Help me go deeper and deeper until I reach the other side.  Thank you.  I walked into the caves through a vault door in the earth with a group of ten people and one guide.  Slowly we weaved through untouched limestone illuminated by hidden lights on the ground until we reached a part of the cave called the Cathedral.  There no lights shone, and I walked into the blackness, looking without being able to see.  I felt the space around me; I walked slowly as if I might fall but knew I would not fall.  A feeling of sureness and safety alive with calm, steady energy washed over and engulfed me.  In that moment I held everything and nothing; I went to a place where understanding is beyond words. 
When the tour guide flipped the lights on, the high ceiling and steep walls of the Cathedral were illuminated and the feeling left me.  We then walked further down to the water and boarded a small boat that floated us through the caves.  Above us millions of tiny glowworms smaller than stars emitted a green light.  No one spoke, and in the silence and speckled darkness I finally understood what it means to go deeper.  There, below the layers of soil and rock, is a light that will only shine in darkness.  A light that does not take over, but blends quietly with the black and allows one to blend with it, too.  My prayers of the previous night were answered in the caves: I did go deeper and deeper, and I did find the other side, and I was alone until I wasn’t.  This shared experience allowed us all to be alone in the same boat, but we ended together as we emerged from the cave into the afternoon sunlight. 
In the month and a half since this experience there have been moments in which I held sadness and loss, and I still have a lot of letting go to do, but the heavy pain that weighed me down has lifted.  Now, as I reflect on these past few months, what I see is the incredible network of support weaved together from all facets of my life that caught me as I fell.  In the midst of my aloneness I found myself cradled in the love of my family and friends, and I stand in awe at that love that surrounds me. 
I say thank you everyday for my family and our blessings, but this year I say it more deeply.  It is their support that has kept me going and reminded me that I am love.  Now I am beginning again, growing out of emptiness to find all that brings me alive.