Friday, May 28, 2021
Tuesday, May 18, 2021
(You can also listen to this on Tri States Public Radio)
I hear myself saying a little too often these days that I’m glad I grew up when I did, before cell phones and selfies. Before the internet became a runaway train of disinformation. Before being famous was valued more than being a good person. Before this current era of entitlement where the prevailing attitude is “It’s all about me.” Me first. America first. Look at me. Like me. Follow me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me.
I grew up in Iowa in the 70s and spent my summers at Camp Abe Lincoln, a YMCA camp on the Mississippi River, just south of the Quad Cities. “The YMCA is a non-profit organization whose mission is to put Christian values into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind, and body for all.” This mission was incorporated into every camp activity. As we sat around the nightly campfire, the counselors told stories of peace and love, and led us in songs like “Kumbaya” and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” When we rode and groomed horses, we learned about respect and care for animals. Archery and riflery were a means to teach focus and hand-eye coordination, with an emphasis on safety and non-violence. And when we did crafts, braiding lanyards and weaving colorful yarn around popsicle sticks to create a “God’s Eye,” counselors artfully worked in messages of morality.
More than 40 years later, one of those messages still sticks with me. It was about humility and selflessness delivered in the form of a quote by Gayle Sayers, a Hall of Fame football player for the Chicago Bears. The quote was, “The lord is first, my friends are second, and I am third,” though I didn’t remember it in those exact words. I thought it was “God is first, others are second, and I am third.” I like to think my version is more all-encompassing, as every religion, not just Christianity, worships God, even if they call it by a different name. And by declaring “others are second,” it can include making an outsider feel welcome, helping people less fortunate than you, or simply being nice to strangers, like letting the person with only one item go ahead of you in the grocery line when you have a full cart. All of which leaves you open to making more friends.
“God is first, others are second,
and I am third.”
Sayers lived his life by this credo, which you can learn more about in his autobiography titled “I Am Third: The Inspiration for Brian’s Song.” He passed away at the age of 77 this past September. If he were still alive, I would reach out to him to ask what he thought about the world today.
What happened to “I am third?” And how can we bring that message back?Apple TV series of the same name. Ted, played by Jason Sudeikis, is hired to coach a soccer team in England. But to everyone’s astonishment he doesn’t care about winning. What’s more important, he insists, is to be a unified team. The problem is, the star player is egocentric and refuses to pass the ball to his teammates; he makes all the goals himself so he can reap all the glory. His selfishness erodes the morale of the team, until Ted finally gets through to him, teaching him, like my camp counselors taught me, the most valuable lesson in the game of life: I am third.
There is no “I” in team. For a safe and healthy planet, we need to work together. For a more unified world, we have to put others first. Life is better and less lonely when it’s not all about me, me, me. The solution is easy. All you have to do is pass the ball.
Friday, March 5, 2021
|Taking a walk on the wild side|
Yesterday morning I wrote in my journal that I want to do more to help the world, but that I don’t know where to start. The world is so desperately in need of help just thinking about it made me feel bad that I’m not doing more. The feeling only became worse as the buffalo herd of “shoulds” charged at me in a stampede of shame. I should be involved with a cause. I should be volunteering for a homeless shelter, an immigration center, a women’s crisis hotline. I should be working with World Central Kitchen. No, I should have started World Central Kitchen. I should join the Peace Corps. I should be giving my time, my money, my plasma, my groceries, my winter coats, my life, to help others in need. It’s my civic duty as a human being to help others in need.
All this to say I made myself feel so overwhelmed, so unworthy of taking up space on this planet, I wanted to go back to bed.
On my way home I got a text from my landlord. “You get an A+ on the casita.” I wanted to text her back and tell her that I had been happy to do it, but I was driving, so I just smiled, glad that she appreciated my effort.
Later that evening, having just settled in on the couch to read, I heard yelling outside, not a normal occurrence on a ranch where approximately six people live within a six-mile radius. The only nighttime noise you hear is the coyotes howling and an occasional rooster crowing. I peeked past the curtains and saw the beam of a flashlight sweeping across the black desert landscape. There are a few RV parking spots about fifty yards away from my casita, one is occupied by a couple with a large motorhome and two dogs. It was the wife calling for one of their dogs, Buddy, a Jack Russell terrier. A small dog on the loose at night in this remote area is a death sentence. Even in daylight it can be dangerous as I know from losing my own Jack Russell mix, Daisy, six years ago. Predators don’t discriminate.
I threw on my coat and boots, found my glasses, turned on my flashlight app, and went outside to see if I could help, grabbing a bag of dog treats on my way out the door.
The ranch is surrounded by national forest and open range; it’s as wild as the Wild West gets. The only thing separating us from the wilderness is a saggy barbwire fence, and the woman (let’s call her Susan), as well as her wayward dog, were on the wild side of it. I crawled through the fence to join Susan, who was not wearing a coat, even though the temp was 40 degrees and dropping.
“The more I call him, the more he runs away,” she said. “The only one he listens to is my husband.”
“Where is he?” I asked.
“He’s asleep in the camper.”
“Well, let’s go wake him up.”
“No,” she said. “He’s been drinking. You know how that is.”
The way she said it broke my heart a little.
We stood in silence for a moment, listening for a clue as to Buddy's whereabouts. I dreaded the sound of coyotes yipping, the way they do when circling in for a kill, but the only sound was the wind blowing over the mountains, across the rolling grasslands, and through the dried scrub. And then . . . a faint bark. I rattled the bag of dog treats and instantly, appearing in the beam of the flashlight, was Buddy. White and brown, macho and all attitude, he looked up at me with his big brown eyes as if to ask, “What’s the problem?” As if he hadn’t caused the heart rates of not one, but two people to spike.
Susan grabbed hold of his collar while I doled out treats.
“I’m sure the adrenaline is keeping you from feeling any thorns,” I said.
“I haven’t stepped on any,” she replied, “but I just got poked in the face by a branch.”
“Be careful. These mesquite trees are evil and can take an eye out.”
We reached the RV, but between Buddy and her flashlight she didn’t have a free hand to unlatch the door. I opened it for her, careful not to let her other dog out—part black lab, part antelope, a sprinter who would have traveled farther and faster than Buddy, and not one to be bribed back by a measly little dog treat. Susan wedged her body inside, while I blocked the door to prevent the other dog’s escape.
“Thank you so much,” she said. “Now I know how to get him to come.”
“Here, keep the dog treats,” I said.
On my way back to my casita, I thought about what I had written in my journal that morning: “I want to help the world.” I had been thinking on a grand scale, too grand. Because what I realized is that helping the world starts with small acts close to home. Be it supporting my landlord’s efforts to sell her property, treating my niece to a meal while listening to her concerns about becoming an adult, and saving a reckless dog from becoming a coyote snack, helping the world is about making the effort—better yet, the extra effort. To hide all your clutter in your cupboards for the photoshoot when you were basically asked to just make your bed. To drive an hour each way, down the mountain and back up again, for a conversation and a slice of pizza with a family member. To head out into the dark and dangerous wilderness to find a neighbor's dog when you could have just stayed in your warm house reading on the couch.
Small acts of kindness. Every day. That’s how we help the world. That's where we begin.
You might also like to read my other blog posts:
Thursday, December 10, 2020
This essay originally aired on TriStates Public Radio. Go here to listen.Bah humbug. I don’t know about you but I’m really struggling with the holidays this year. It’s a perfect storm, a trifecta of winter weather, the pandemic, and climate crisis. I mean, geez, why bother even getting out of bed? But I only allow myself to take refuge under the covers for so long until I remind myself to focus not on the problems, but on the solutions.
The solution to cold weather.
Like 20 percent of the population, I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. The shorter days, the gray skies, and the overall lack of light all conspire to bring me down faster than the plummeting temperatures. Over the years I’ve tried everything: vitamin D, light box therapy, antidepressants, and exercise. Exercise worked well. Too well. Two winters ago, I swam in the tropical waters of our local rec center pool and it was so helpful to my mood that I kept swimming – until I injured my shoulders. Shoulder pain or not, I’m too worried about the virus to go to a rec center this winter. The only other thing that gives me relief from sunlight deprivation is the sun itself. So I followed the migration of the monarchs who flee to the south and am spending the winter in Arizona. The sun fuels my soul. Though, unfortunately, the weather is not as warm as my body requires. The better solution would have been to go with the monarchs all the way to Mexico. But . . . the pandemic.
The solution to the pandemic.
The New York Times just ran an article titled, “The Double Whammy of Seasonal Affective Disorder in a Season of COVID.” God help me -- and the millions of others who suffer from even just a mild version of SAD. If not for my fear of ending up on a ventilator, I would be spending time with my family, but I had to decline my brother’s invitation to celebrate Thanksgiving with him and his college-age kids, as that would have been like stepping into a COVID petri dish. I would be in Los Angeles right now visiting my mom to bring us both some holiday cheer, but LA is under lock-down for three weeks. Instead, I am -- along with just about everyone in the world – grieving not only the loss of lives, but the loss of connection that the pandemic has bestowed. There is no gathering in groups for holiday parties for some much-needed face-to-uncovered\ face conversation, or even more important, hugging. There is no taking my laptop to a coffeehouse, lingering over a good meal at a restaurant, or browsing for hours in a bookstore. As humans, we require physical and social contact for our wellbeing. But life as we’ve known it is over, and this is causing tremendous grief.
But I know grief. I know what helps heal it – and that is doing nice things for others. Like making a pie for a friend who is even more depressed than you. Or buying groceries for someone who lost their job. Or donating winter coats to a coat drive. And now that the holidays are upon us, we can get an added dopamine hit by giving gifts to others. That was the case for me as I got lured into the frenzy of Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals. But then I was like, “Wait. Consumerism is bad for the environment. By buying non-essential, made-in-China things, with all the plastic and all the fossil fuels required from manufacturing all the way to delivery, I’m only contributing to the climate crisis.”
The solution to the climate crisis.Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming,” edited by Paul Hawken. Instead of dwelling on the apocalypse, it offers guidance on practical things we can do to help save the planet. Too late or not, it’s a dose of hope. Another book, one for the holiday season, is “Have Yourself a Minimalist Christmas” by Meg Nordmann. She writes about ways we can give without adding to the stress on our mental state, our wallets, and, ultimately, our landfills, by finding value in “experiences over objects” and giving comestible gifts instead of material ones. I, for one, would prefer receiving a box of chocolates over anything that adds to the clutter in my house.
Meanwhile, I keep telling myself – and anyone else who’s struggling -- to hang on a little longer. This is a hard patch, but it’s ultimately a blip in time. I’m going to keep getting out of bed, taking walks in the sun, wearing my mask, and recycling – while holding tight to the knowledge that this, too, shall pass.
You might also like reading these previous posts:
For pie-making help, check out my YouTube series, Stay Calm and Bake Pie
Friday, October 30, 2020
It’s my baptismal font, my hole in the ground that gets me a few feet closer to the earth’s core. It’s in these waters, the color of meat broth, where I immerse myself to calm my anxieties, soothe my aches—of the heart and otherwise—and to make me feel closer to nature, which to me is the same thing as god. No matter that these waters are filled with blue gills and bass, their silver bodies shimmering below the surface as they swim, their scales scraping my skin, their sharp little teeth nibbling on my legs, stomach, and buttocks that make me cry out in surprise. They are harmless, really. They’re not piranhas. And if not for the fish, algae would cover the pond in wall-to-wall green carpet.
Frogs line the perimeter, hidden in the willows, burrowed in the mud, sheltered by the fortress of tall grass bending in the wind. They croak their guttural chirps in unison, until some disturbance – like a ripple in the water made by my hand as I swim – makes them to go silent in an instant, as if the multitude of them were a singular voice.
The pond’s original purpose was not to be my private swimming hole, but for erosion control. A bulldozer dug out a ditch, the displaced earth was used to build up a berm to keep Iowa’s valuable black soil from traveling downhill into the growing gully below, and in turn an aquatic catch basin was created.
With no other options—given the six other ponds on the thousand-acre farm have resident snakes and snapping turtles and occasional algae blooms—I’ve claimed this pond, the newest of them, as my sacred space. But only after making an agreement with the frogs and fish to share it, respecting our coexistence in the ecosystem.
It’s the church I go to meditate, where I can sit in solitary silence on the end of the dock the farmer built for me, and put my face toward the sun, and talk to whatever higher power exists “up there” as the wind swirling around my body reminds me of my physical being.
It’s the chapel/the funeral home/the psych ward I ran to when my dog died, sprinting from the house and taking a shortcut across the field, flinging myself fully clothed into the cooling pool, not to drown myself, but to douse the searing pain of grief that coursed through me like fire. I stayed in the water for an hour that day, clinging to a rubber innertube as my body heaved with sobs, though it was the pond itself that was the life preserver.
Sometimes the pond is a place to spend time with friends, to have intimate conversations with the farmer, to drink cocktails as the sun sets. Sometimes the pond is simply a place to swim, to float, to drift, to dream, to just be.
* * * * *
Thursday, September 17, 2020
Two days ago, I was in a state of despair over the world. The corrupt, greedy, misogynistic men in office, the ones who lie, cheat, steal, and bend our American constitution to their will to hang onto their power . . . These bastards dominating the headlines were breaking my heart so badly I was questioning my emotional capacity to endure. I cried so hard I worried I might give myself a brain aneurysm. But that evening, I arrived at my friend Kathleen’s to dog sit for a week. As Kathleen tried to console me, I happened to see she had Glennon Doyle’s new bestselling book, “Untamed,” on her shelf.
I hadn't read the book, in part because I am reluctant to pledge allegiance to any kind of guru (or clergy of any kind), including writers who have been placed on pedestals as spiritual leaders or healers. Even so, I was on Glennon Doyle’s mailing list and stayed on it only because her newsletters were short, mostly news announcements, and so infrequent they didn’t clog my inbox.
Glennon’s latest email contained a sweet, well-designed, animated video. It told the story of a cheetah in a zoo kept in a cage: Tabitha. Glennon was disturbed to see how the zookeepers had tried to tame Tabitha, and was certain that, deep inside, Tabitha remembered her “wild,” remembered “she was a goddamn cheetah.”
The video, which I had seen the day before my episode of The Great Despair, was a story from “Untamed,” and when I got to Kathleen’s and saw the book, I wondered if there was some cosmic intervention going on, that my bat signal had been picked up by the universe and was sending help. I began reading it that night. And I didn’t put it down until I ran out of pages to turn.
In “Untamed,” like in Liz Gilbert’s “Big Magic,” Glennon poses a question: “What breaks your heart?” She writes, “Heartbreak is not something to be avoided; it’s something to pursue. Heartbreak is one of the greatest clues of our lives. The thing that breaks your heart is the very thing you were born to help heal.”
But wait, how can I heal a whole world? How can I take on racism, sexism, environmentalism, and the infinite number of other “isms”? The list is way too long!
Ah, but Ms. Doyle knows this is what you’re thinking—what I’m thinking—and is right there with a response in the next paragraph.
“Despair says, ‘The heartbreak is too overwhelming. I am too sad and too small, and the world is too big. I cannot do it all, so I will do nothing.' Courage says, 'I will not let the fact that I cannot do everything keep me from doing what I can.’”
This was my despair described so accurately. My sense of powerlessness to change anything, to fix anything, to make the world better—and by better, I mean less racist, less violent, more equal, more just.
“Every world-changer's work begins with a broken heart,” she says.
As much as I was inspired by “Untamed,” I didn’t, like I did with “Big Magic,” grab my phone and sign up to volunteer for a cause. I was still feeling too overwhelmed, too sad, and too small. And there are so many things breaking my heart that it’s impossible to narrow it down. Yes, I use pie as a form of humanitarian aid and contribution to society—to build community, spread kindness, and promote healing—but there has to be more I can do. I want to do more. But it’s just so hard to know where to start.
Author and Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön (another spiritual leader/healer/author) answers this conundrum with a book title: “Start Where You Are.”
And I have already started. I am writing my “World Piece” memoir, about my trip around the world during the summer of 2015, when I made pie in nine countries to promote goodwill and cultural acceptance. In the process of writing it, I am putting the pieces of my heart back together. And who knows? Maybe one day, when it’s published, someone will pick up my book and it will be exactly the right book at exactly the right time for them.
And maybe, just maybe—GOD WILLING—things will turn around after November 3 and we can fill the headlines with stories of honest, empathetic people who want to help others instead of only themselves.
This post originally aired as a commentary on Tri States Public Radio. To listen instead of reading, go here.
So many things are making me anxious these days. I have fears about getting COVID-19, about the November elections, about the rise of white supremacy, about our divisions growing so deep we could end up in a civil war. I worry about how plants, animals, and common decency are on the verge of extinction. From the collapse of our democracy to grocery shopping during a pandemic, I’m afraid of just about everything.
I’ve never been scared like this before. The question is why? What has changed in our world that has made everything so wildly out of balance?The Social Dilemma. I watched it last night and at first it seemed like a dystopian horror movie, but instead of stoking more fear, the documentary gave me some reassurance that I am not alone in my concerns, and that, thankfully, there are people dedicated to turning things around. Ironically, some of those people are the ones who created the problems in the first place, like Aza Raskin who invented infinite scrolling, one of the features that makes social media so addictive—an invention he now regrets. And Justin Rosenstein, who co-created Facebook’s “like” button as a tool for spreading “positivity and love.” That it is used as a measure of self-esteem, and has led to depression and even suicide, was nowhere on his radar.
A central figure in the film, Tristan Harris, the co-founder of The Center for Humane Technology, says, “It feels like the world is going crazy.” He poses the question, “Is this normal or have we all fallen under some kind of spell?” His answer is yes, addiction- and manipulation-based technology is designed to work like a spell, employing artificial intelligence that “uses your own psychology against you.”
We are being baited with images and stories to ensure we spend more time online. We are being fed altered videos, misleading memes, and posts so inflammatory they end friendships. Our newsfeeds fill up with false rumors about voter fraud and dangerous claims about COVID cures that proliferate faster than the California wildfires. But do tech companies care about the effect this has on our civil society? No, they don’t, because they’re making huge profits.
The rise of fake news and conspiracy theories is happening not because we are bad human beings who want to turn against each other; it’s because algorithms designed for ad revenue are leading us over the cliff. Lies spread faster than truth, thus producing higher earnings. Cable news, another rabid source of political polarization, is designed this way too. The more outrage, the more people watch, the more advertising dollars they make. Meanwhile we spend less time engaging with people in real life, which only makes us more isolated, disenfranchised and divided.
But how do we stop this vicious cycle?
The consensus of those interviewed in the film is that social media companies need congressional oversight. I agree. On an individual basis, we can hit the pause button. We don’t need to delete our social media accounts all together, but we can stop ourselves from sharing posts or making comments that provoke outrage, and verify that news stories are from legitimate sources. We can limit screen time, and dial down temptation by turning off notifications. And by all means, we should keep our phones out of our bedrooms at night.
We have the power to change our behavior; man can prevail over machine. I have stopped checking my phone when I first wake up. And I am several months into an extended break from Facebook. It started with taking a stand against Mark Zuckerberg’s refusal to stop the spread of disinformation and hate speech. But it made me realize how my anxiety was in direct proportion to the time I was spending on social media and news sites. If I wanted to feel better, it was up to me to take steps. I was still doomscrolling on Twitter and the New York Times, but after watching The Social Dilemma I deleted those and any other remaining apps that might elevate my blood pressure. The only ones left are DuoLingo and Solitaire.
* * * * *
WHAT TO DO WITH ALL THAT TIME YOU SAVE BY NOT BEING ON SOCIAL MEDIA? How about making some pie?! Here are some free lessons. Yes, they're on another social media platform of YouTube, but they are helpful, sometimes funny, and you can bake along with me. Stay Calm & Bake Pie
Here are more of my blog posts addressing social media.