In free fall? Trust your self-organizing self

When I am falling apart, I have found I can rely on self-organizing wisdom, a seventh grade strategy.

The pleasures of writing began with dodging outline assignments when I was in junior high school. An English or history teacher typically required me first to turn in The Outline, and then use it as a guide to writing the paper:

I Main Idea #1

    A  ….

        1 ….

        2 ….

    B….

II Main idea #2

 

The problem was I am gifted with an associative mind.

Composing an outline drained the life right out of my thinking and ordering processes. My work-around was simple: I did the assignment backwards. I wrote the paper first and then used the paper to construct the required outline. This strategy forced me to front-load hours of homework, but that was relatively easy in comparison to pulling Main Ideas out of thin air. I trusted how my mind works, and how my creativity works.

Fast forward to Goucher College, where I majored in French Lit. I tried to go for a cross-departmental major in English and French, but I was way ahead of the interdisciplinary curve. I wrote my senior thesis on metaphor in Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.  A la recherche du temps perdu was published conveniently in 10 rather slim volumes (en francais). This allowed me to read and take notes on one volume per week for the 10-week first semester of senior year, and do other collateral research and write the paper the following semester. 

I took notes on 3×5 file cards. Quotes that stood out. Points made by Proust’s biographers or literary critics. I had several shoe-boxes full by the time I began to write. I spread the cards out on the floor around me and sorted them into piles by theme. Then I began to consider how the themes related to one another, the structure of the whole work, and Proust’s use of language. Metaphor attracted my attention and became the organizing principle. If you had asked me at the time, I would certainly have claimed credit for the whole thing.

 

As a life-long student, it turns out that I have been captivated by self-organizing behavior.

My papers organized themselves. Like animal swarms, neural networks, embryonic and ecological development.

As an herbalist I have likewise come to trust the wisdom of the body. I look for a combination of plants and formulas that will nudge an ailing body back towards health. Typically I offer a combination of restorative herbs and nutrients and encouragement in weaning from habits that make the system work harder. Together these two approaches companion the body in doing what it knows how to do: restore order to its own house. That is to say, healthy relationship among the parts, the body’s functions.

But I still somehow failed to grok that the whole of my own life is a self-organizing process – one that I shape and mold, for sure, but is not, um, in my control. Rather, is guided by an inherent wisdom that is not personal to me at all.

 

It has taken two winters, each with an extended episode of illness, to bring me to my full senses.

Last winter it was dysregulation of my nervous system: sleepless nights, anxiety bordering on panic attacks. None of the considerable inner resources I had cultivated had any effect at all. My friend and master body-worker Johnny had the skill to lead me through a session where the switch flipped and my parasympathetic nervous system – the one responsible for rest, recovery, and digestion, came back online. This winter it was two bouts of flu, each with 7-8 weeks of recovery time. These illnesses, like the previous winter’s, occurred within the context of the unwinding of deep emotional patterns embedded in my body.

Here’s the thing: once the unwinding had occurred, my body knew what to do. I just had to listen. Even the unwinding was my body knowing what to do.When to hold on and when to let go. When to speak up, when to be quiet. When to expend, when to save my energies. This has allowed my whole being to reorganize itself in a healthier, happier way. And gifted me with a greater trust in the falling-apart process.

 

It feels like a free fall, and it’s a time to reach out for help. But this wisdom is there to catch me. And you.

That wisdom is God’s longing to be in this world with us and through us. In Come Healing, Leonard Cohen sings it: the “longing of the branches to lift the little bud,  “the longing of the arteries to purify the blood.”

 

If I had to, I could turn this story into one heck of an Outline.


PS  Wishing you all a summer with enough of the weather, fresh veggies and fruits and outdoor life that most delight you.  Over the next few months I will be posting just once a month. Something is afoot that wants more time: for reading and research and conversation and listening and quiet absorption and integration. It’s my way of “going to the beach” or, as we Marylanders say, “down-ee o-shun.”


Banner photo  Burning Through, by Mary Lansman. Hillsborough Gallery of Art, Hillsborough, North Carolina.

 

Time collapses, the fruits of practice persist

This week I’m drawn to reflect on how clock time collapses in the face of death, life and practice. And yet something vital persists through time.

 

A funeral

Sunday was marked by the torrential rains that once again washed away historic Ellicott City’s Main Street. The locals call it “a 1,000 year storm.” What meteorologists mean by this is there is a .1% chance in any year that such a storm will hit. But the last one hit just two years ago. I’m not sure if actuarial tables follow the same mathematical principles: a seventy-nine year old woman could be expected to live for another ten years. Judy did not.

Judy and her husband Jon were among the first “locals” I met when I moved to Baltimore to go to college. Over the years that we spent time in one another’s homes and on an occasional outing, she was kind and helpful in the way an older sister can be. I lost this couple in a divorce almost forty years ago and had rarely seen them since. Even so, I wanted to be present among the mourners honoring her life. Waiting for the ceremony to begin, the room was full of people greeting one another – so many people in her life who were not strangers to one another.

The officiating rabbi had listened deeply and wisely to what family members recalled about Judy’s life, and wove them into a beautiful and tender picture: significant losses that had shaped her as an adolescent, choices she made to tend to family, to her social work and counseling patients, to community institutions and well-being.

I experienced once again a mix of wonder, regret, and resignation that it is through a eulogy I learn so much about one who has died. The person I remember fondly, “knew” and took to be a whole person – I “knew” such a small part and yet somehow that also contained the whole of her.

I experienced once again how time collapses at such a moment: a lifetime into a 20-minute  eulogy. The definitive ending. Or a person’s departure from the time-bound into some timeless realm. A self-comforting thought.

 

An ordination

Tuesday was marked by a more rare event, and one that I was attending for the first time: the ordination of my old friend Jerry as a rabbi.  Jerry and his wife Becky and I had shared some years together as members of the same weekly Chaverah, a Jewish fellowship. As I pulled up and parked across the street from the 145-year old synagogue, Jerry beckoned me to join in the pre-ceremonial photo-shoot outside. We were delighted to see one another: it had been perhaps several decades.

From a distance I had followed his lengthy journey through both secular and rabbinic studies. This was such a singular culmination of years of effort. According to Becky’s lovingly written bio of her husband he began teaching himself Hebrew out of a book when he was 15, visited Israel five times before he was 20. He earned a degree with honors in Political Science and Spanish. Most recently Jerry completed a Rabbinical degree at the Union of Traditional Judaism along with an MS in Pastoral Counseling.

Several of his rabbinic teachers traveled some distance for the occasion, and  praised Jerry for his devotion, persistence, patience, and provocative questions as a student. But the overall theme of this eulogy-during-life was his menschlichkeit (roughly translated from the Yiddish as humanity, human goodness, honor, integrity). They spoke to his skill in tending to peoples’ needs, to sensing just which words, which tone to strike to help the person in front of him. And they spoke of the partnership between Jerry and Becky, and their numerous acts of kindness, showing up at the door of whoever needed help in the community with practical, emotional, and spiritual support.

 

The similarities to the eulogy spoken at Judy’s funeral were striking: one life story ended, another beginning a new chapter. And yet in Jerry’s life, time collapses regularly. 

Because among the many dynamics of Torah study is the collapse of time.  We are cautioned not to assume the events we read in chronological order in Torah actually transpired that way. And the 63 sections of the Talmud contain conversations among countless rabbis over hundreds of years, as if all were sitting around a table in the same study hall with today’s students.

 

Times collapses, but the fruits of our practice persist.

Whatever we devote ourselves to is our practice.

This is how we build our character, our menschlichkeit.

This is how we write our life story, whose ending is beyond our choosing.

And the fruits of our devotion endure, made, as they are, of love.

Let’s stay in touch

Dear Friends –

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Thank you!

Warmly,

Sara

 

On patriotism and sorrow: a personal history of the flag

You will seldom read about sports here, but Roger Goodell’s statement on national anthem policy today provokes many thoughts about patriotism and how the ties that bind us can also divide us.

When I was ten years old God got mixed into the business both of patriotism and daily household purchases. This is the year (1954) that the words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance, not without controversy. I remember stumbling over the word change every morning after Congress passed the Joint Resolution that mandated this change to the Flag Code. Two years later Congress passed another Joint Resolution stipulating that the words “in God we trust” must appear on all U.S. currency. 

These changes mixed strangely with warm feelings of standing with the multitudes at Cleveland Municipal Stadium to sing the National Anthem on pleasant summer evenings, followed by the pronouncement: “Play ball.” And even more strangely with the grainy apoplectic faces of Senator Joseph McCarthy and company: McCarthy, chairman of the Senate Government Operations Committee, conducted hearings into his charges that the U.S. Army was “soft on communism.” This is among my earliest memories of television. Also 1954.

Flags stood at the front of the classroom in elementary school, and flew from poles in public places. We were taught that Betsy Ross was a seamstress who “made” the first American flag. This may be an apocryphal story first recorded by her grandson. We were not taught that as an apprentice to an upholsterer she also made and repaired curtains, bedcovers, tablecloths, rugs, umbrellas and Venetian blinds.

And then – in 1954! – President Eisenhower standardized the dates and time periods when the flag was to be flown at half staff:  Memorial Day, Peace Officers Day, upon the death of a president or former president (for 30 days), upon the death of a vice president, Supreme Court chief justice/retired chief justice, or speaker of the House of Representatives (10 days.)

My first memory of the flag at half-staff is following the assassination of President Kennedy – nineteen years after Eisenhower’s proclamation. The period of mourning was one of extraordinary national unity.

 

All in all my relationship with the flag was respectful, if perfunctory and transactional. 

So I was more bemused than triumphant when astronauts Aldrin and Armstrong planted the flag on the moon in 1969. More bemused than horrified by flag-burnings during Vietnam War protests.

It was President Nixon who adopted the flag as a lapel pin. He was also the first President to end a public speech with the words “God bless America and God bless each and every one of you.” (The speech was an attempt to exert damage control over the escalating Watergate scandal.)  And flag pins were not uncommon during the First Gulf War (1990-91).

But it was after 9/11 that President George W. Bush – and his staff – and some news anchors, began not so much wearing as displaying them.

 

This is when I started to feel queasy. 

As if something that was a standard fixture in my life was being appropriated to stand in for something that I did not stand for at all: the display of patriotism. As if the terrible assault on our civilian life required the display of a symbol for us to rally around. I’m not talking about fireworks displays or parades on Independence Day. Or the display of respect when a folded flag is handed to the family of a fallen military member. 

What I mean is the display of the flag as a badge of chosen-ness, of righteousness or self-righteousness, the display of the flag as if it is a political brand. Or a team brand. This is where Goodell’s statement of the day comes in:

It was unfortunate that on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousands of NFL players were unpatriotic. This is not and was never the case.

This season, all league and team personnel shall stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem. Personnel who choose not to stand for the anthem may stay in the locker room until after the anthem has been performed.

And then there’s the mixing up of patriotism and God. The God I believe in is not the God of American currency, a deity of patriotism, or a deity who favors either a set of political or religious beliefs or any tribe or nation.

 

The flag for me has become real. It has become a sorrow.

Not a symbol of sorrow but a sorrow in itself. Because it is flown at half-staff with such frequency that I often have to inquire of people  – or Google – just who is being mourned and for what reason.

And because in 2018 the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag does not confound a 10-year-old trying to remember to add two new words to her daily recitation, but inspires a six-year-old to decide, all on his own, to take the knee. And because in 2018 a team member can be relegated to the locker room for “bad” behavior (choosing not to stand for the national anthem) the way I could be sent to the coat-room at the back of my classroom in 1954 for behaving out of order.

 

So I heartfully propose that we decommission the flag, the pledge, and the anthem all three as badges of anything. 

Let us rid all three of sanctimony. Instead let us return them to their essential nature, a true sanctity. Let us consider the values they inspire us to embody, in support of the indivisible Union to which we continue to aspire. Humility shoulder to shoulder with pride. From the depths of our humanity.

I can think of no better antidote to

the American flag as sorrow.

Limits of our seeing, depth in our listening

When we fail to notice the limits of how things look to us, we can inflict a great deal of harm. It is seeing-listening that opens us to human connection.

 

Three stories I heard this week about how deeply our physical appearance affects our lives

Her right arm in a cast and sling, this visionary and hard-working woman was stunned at how thoughtfully people responded to her apparent need for help. No one has made any such allowances for her, she noted, during times when she has actually felt a lot worse.

A courageous young woman struggling with multiple auto-immune diagnoses was dismayed when she heard other women in her online support groups describe how physicians treated them dismissively because Ankylosing Spondylitis is considered “a man’s disease.” 

A skilled, team-playing and tenacious contractor who was let go from her federal position considers her options as she applies for other jobs. The medical marijuana industry attracts her.  She can see herself learning about the industry and ultimately opening her own dispensary.  She also sees the industry as “nontraditional,” offering her freedom to show up where she is less constrained, less hindered by how she is seen in white-male-dominated workplaces: as her gender and skin color.

 

Bias is another way to describe the limits of how things look to us, and limit our capacity to connect

None of us is without our filters as we make our way through life. Even amongst family, close friends and associates, our personal suffering, both emotional and physical, can be “missed” or “dismissed” because we look fine, seem cheerful, have a pretty good energy level. We display no obvious signifiers of distress. No arm in a sling. And when we talk about our distress, what we say, how we are heard, may not override the visual conclusion already reached: oh, she’s really fine.

This is one reason we often turn to people who we know are going through the same thing.

There are other settings – medical or workplace – where the biases, and the harm of our limited “seeing” go deeper. This can play out with the physician reluctant to order lab tests you ask for, or undervaluing your mood, stress, or pain symptoms. The average time from onset to diagnosis if fibromyalgia, for example, is 5-8 years.  Or the lack of opportunities for women and people of color to advance and to occupy positions of influence and leadership.

When we are not aware of our filters, our biases, we are unable ourselves to be full human beings. Nor are we able to meet others as full human beings.

 

Seeing-Listening takes us below surface appearances, where we can be aware of our own biases and meet a fully dimensional human being 

Going by my appearance, one may comment on my outfit, the bags under my eyes, or the expression on my face, and ask “What’s going on?” Then comes the listening (or not.) My tone of voice. My word choices, metaphor of the day. I may feel invited to open up – or close down. But when a friend, a colleague, or a medical professional listens to me deeply, non-judgmentally, with curiosity and nuance, I experience a renewed wholeness.

As a healer, it took me a long time to understand why my clients weren’t put off by my taking notes when I sit with them, and even why the note-taking doesn’t distract me and take my attention elsewhere. It’s about the listening I am able to presence while I take notes. A listening that includes awareness of my own filters. As I can do that, I find I am Seeing-Listening:  I can take in the glorious particulars of her appearance, her story, as she sits across from me, and also the heartfulness of our shared, and flawed, human condition. As I See-Listen, an exchange of giving and receiving flows between us. And in any given moment, either of us may be receiving, either of us giving.

Even in environments fraught with structural barriers for women and people of color, when we can make space for more than transactional relationships, when we set our intention on connecting to one another, there are opportunities to meet across our differences. There are opportunities to bear one another. To appreciate one another. It is Seeing-Listening that allows another person, however different from us, to show up as the full human being they are, not as a representative of their gender or ethnicity or religious practice. Not as a boss or peer or subordinate, but as a whole human being.

It will take many types of collective efforts to remedy the coarseness of our national conversation, as well as our structural problems, the policies and practices of our government and private institutions.

But there is no choice closer at hand to us as individuals in relationship, whatever the personal or professional context. All it takes is a pause to remember: this angry/strange/different person in front of me may have more sorrows than joys, and still has a human heart.  Offer the gift of Seeing-Listening, even in small ways, as you go about your day. You too may start to wonder who is the giver, who the receiver.

Des frissons: shivering with stray worries, pleasure

Just now a few stray worries set me shivering like these black cohosh in a light breeze. Tingling micro-movements also mixed with anticipation, fear, pleasure. Perhaps you too can feel that quiver in the French “des frissons.” 

photo

Black Cohosh, meanwhile, is safely rooted

in the soil by such roots as these,

so beautifully drawn by herbalist Doug Elliott

(Wild Roots, A Forager’s Guide,

from Healing Arts Press.)

Frissons

by Sara Eisenberg

ceaseless, the inner move-

ments, mo-ments,

i am leaf stalks in a strong spring

breeze, shivering in spite

of warm air,

long blown 

away

but

for

my

gnarly roots,

scarred and sprouting pinkish

buds from which emerges new growth.

Listen as the garden teaches

Lilah, pictured above, oversees the garden as the temperature climbs towards 90 degrees.  She appears to be sleeping, but listens as the garden teaches.

It’s not that unusual for us to go from blustery, gray, chill and damp directly to summer. But this year the perennials are more confused than usual. A feast for the eyes and soul, a grand allergy provocation (all those grass and tree pollens.) The sixty-foot Linden tree that anchors our property and shades the house is barely budding. Yet blooming all at once, we have, left to right:

Row 1 Jack-in-the Pulpit, Goldenseal, Solomon’s Seal

Row 2: Pulsatilla, Dwarf Comfrey, Greater Celandine

Row 3: Senencio,  Cramp Bark, Apple

Row 4: Lenten Rose, Horny Goat’s Weed, Tiarella

photo 3photo 4photo 3

 photo 1photo 1photo 4

photo 1photo 2photo 3

photo 2photo 1photo 2

We began populating our city lot with perennials and medicinals several decades ago.

In 2009 we studied how the water ran, the sun moved, the winds blew, the soil clumped or didn’t – and began applying permaculture principles. We dug up and sheet-mulched vast swaths of lawn and added medicinal trees and shrubs: Fringetree, Vitex, Witch Hazel. We put a bamboo-management plan in place. We added a couple of apple trees and a fig to the venerable grapevines planted by an earlier owner. We’ve drawn back the no-longer common swallowtail caterpillars and gold-finches. The neighborhood fox. And many curious neighbors.

Some plants have flourished, some are just hanging on, many others  did not survive.

The garden teaches

1.  Not everything blooms where it is planted.

2. Not everything blooms.

3. Living things do not mature at the same rate.

4. Some parts of the same living thing may mature while other parts remain stunted.

5. It is wise to feed the roots.

6. A tree shaped by storm damage (aka Life) is no less beautiful than before.

On North Avenue, A Chance Encounter with Dignity

A chance encounter with dignity: we were headed in different directions, our destinations – and everything else – unknown to one another.

A portion of North Avenue, formerly a city limit, is home to a jumble of long-time African-American neighbors, creatives, young entrepreneurs, and people passing through. Rich with their assorted cultural resources. 

It’s one place in Baltimore where racial and class silos are just a bit permeable. People mix it up on the street. At the corner of North Avenue and North Charles Street. At Red Emma’s, where you can pay it forward for a cuppa joe and browse radical lit. At the Y-Not Lot, home to community gatherings like the mourning after the Pulse shootings. At Impact Hub, a co-working and civic forum space. I was headed there yesterday to learn about the work of B-CIITY: Baltimore City Intergenerational Initiatives for Trauma and Youth. 

More about them another time: that event was cancelled at the last minute, making room for a different encounter.

 

North Avenue, Tuesday morning

by Sara Eisenberg

 

how ‘bout we exchange a little love?

you said,

throwing your left arm wide 

open for a hug.

 

awlriiiight, I said,

turning back to you

with a natural affection.

 

you’d spent four bucks

on a bus pass and had not

eaten, i had

a couple of bucks

to spare.

 

we turned away, headed in different

directions,

I had a clear destination, 

arrived to find 

B-CIITY’s event cancelled, so

 

(ten minutes) 

 

there you were, reached out

again, 

standing at the bus stop, half

a hot sandwich wrapped

in paper

 

made my day,

you said

turns out I came down here just to meet you,

I said

 

you looked emaciated, even a lightweight

jacket sat heavy on your

shoulders but

you had a destination too

 

and dignity

to spare.

 


Banner photo: Common Threads, by Linda Carmel, Hillsborough Gallery, Hillsborough, North Carolina

Freddie Gray: three years gone

I am an older white woman. My presence does not provoke a call to 911.

If I get pulled over for a broken tail-light, the most I have to worry about is a pricey ticket.

If I get followed by a salesperson, the most I have to worry about is her zealous devotion to making a sale.

If I am locked out of my house, the most I have to worry about is getting back in and maybe replacing the window I had to break to do it.

I am an older white woman. If I see a cop on the street, I am not likely to flee on foot, as Freddie Gray did on the day of his arrest. According to charging documents, ”unprovoked upon noticing police presence.”

 

Dear Freddie Gray

by Sara Eisenberg

 

Freddie Gray,

there’s a lot of people you never met

whose lives you changed.

 

You should have your own flag, rising

above your own Memorial

Stadium,

while we take the knee,

especially we

white people, 

it was our city that

would not hear your

story in your own words,

who you were, 

what you wanted,

what you wanted to give, 

what you wanted to leave behind,

 

and then leaving long before your time,

 

leaving a lot of people you never met,

whose lives you changed

these three years ago,

people you never met,

whose lives you changed:

in your name,

we’re not leaving

without changing

black men’s lives.

Designed to go on being, even when I forget to trust

I know I am designed “to go on being.” And to “go on being” not just anybody. Not an idealized, cleaned up version of myself. Nor an aspirational version. But a plain and quirky, occasionally brilliant, more often ordinary and flawed Sara: one-of-a-kind.

Yet I forget. I forget to trust my design. 

Life itself provides the reminders, as well as the support and pleasures of “going on being” in the company of other one-of-a-kinders.

 

recommissioned in perpetuity

by Sara Eisenberg

 

a wisdom-mechanism within

moves inexorably towards wholeness,

around, over, through the

barriers I have erected

(put in place for the Highest Good at the time: survival.) I

 

study myself to know I 

am alive, have a place. I 

push myself. I 

push against myself

(prevent  annihilation) 

unforgiving towards my

self as a flaw in creation. I

 

move out of the center of my attention,

move towards you: I 

push against you or disappear

(Reb Nachman said, ‘All the world is just a narrow bridge.” 

Just so my bandwidth for connection.)

 

in my 02 Honda the check engine light comes on.

Gary the technician reminds me it could be nothing, again, or one 

of ninety-two possible malfunctions.

Brenda the healer reminds me I can bear the incompleteness I

am.

 

the battery of the loaner car, parked

in front of my house 

dies.

 

by evening,

Daniel and Leah bear witness to the day’s

recommissions: I trust

my existence, relax

in my skin, dance

as I wash dishes,

self-forgiven,

soft, tender,

a woman

of rank.