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farewell, badger

Have you ever read Badger’s Parting Gifts? It tells the story of an old Badger who knows he will be dying soon, and worries about how his friends Mole, Frog, Fox, and Rabbit will cope with his departure after he goes down “the Long Tunnel.” The rest of this beautifully illustrated book revolves around the touching and creative ways in which Badger’s friends end up cherishing his legacy, and working through their loss.

It is one of my favorite children’s books, and it has a very special place in my heart because it was first read to me on the night before my mother died. She was a gifted psychotherapist who worked for nearly 30 years with terminally ill patients and their grieving children, and received the French Legion of Honor for her contributions to the field of palliative care. But on that last day of her life, she was the one lying in a coma in the same big Parisian hospital where she had accompanied many others to the end of their life.  She was dying of pancreatic cancer.

My sister and I were both by our mother’s side that evening, very much aware that it might be the last. Most everyone who knew her well had already come to say farewell during the previous few weeks, but we were still awaiting one last visitor.  One of our mother’s students had written to us earlier that day to ask for permission to come see her beloved mentor one last time, and say good bye in person. I knew how important this was for her, because of a poignant email she had written a few days before to tell us how big an impact our mother had had on her life, both professionally and personally. So, we were looking forward to meeting her. After she arrived and greeted us, she sat quietly by our mother’s bedside, and then started to talk to her as if she was fully awake and present. Neither my sister nor I were surprised by that. This was how our mother had always taught us to treat anyone in a coma: “always assume that they can hear you perfectly, and address them directly.”

So, in a very loving voice, this young woman by the name of Isabelle told our mother that she had given a lot of thought to what she most wanted to say to her. And she proceeded to thank her for all the gifts she had received from her over the years. Her list was very touching. She even acknowledged the way our mother treated the hospital staff. In this large hospital where she worked for many years as Director of Psychology, she knew every staff member by their first name. And she could always greet them with a personal question that referenced something she knew about their lives (their kids, their hopes, their worries). She addressed surgeons, nurses, receptionists, and the cleaning staff with equal care and respect. That made a big impression on Isabelle, who told us that night that she was doing her best to learn and remember everyone’s name at the hospital where she was now working.

After she finished expressing her gratitude, Isabelle told our mother that she had brought Badger’s Parting Gifts with her, thinking she might like to hear the story one last time. Before proceeding, she turned to my sister and I, and explained that this was a story our mother would often read to bereaved children in her therapy practice.  And it was also a book she enthusiastically recommended to younger therapists who were training with her. Our mother had read countless children’s books to us over the years, in that warm and soulful voice that had now gone silent. She was a magical story-teller. But neither my sister nor I had ever heard this particular story.

So, these are the circumstances under which we received the unexpected gift of hearing Badger’s story for the first time. Though my younger sister and I were both grown adults at the time (38 and 40 years-old, respectively), we were also grieving children. And as we were listening to Isabelle’s sweet story-telling voice, we couldn’t help feeling as if our mother had somehow found a way to share this one last story with us, to help us cope with her departure.  It was a profoundly moving experience and unexpected parting gift, for which I will always feel grateful. In French, the book is titled “Au Revoir Blaireau” (i.e. Farewell, Badger). And these ended up being the very last words I whispered in my mother’s ear before leaving her for the night. She died at dawn the next day, surrounded by the night staff she knew so well.

I have read and re-read Badger’s Parting Gifts many times since then, in both French and English, alone and to friends. And I love giving copies of the book away. It’s one of the ways I like to honor my mother’s memory, and some of her parting gifts, including the deep love of children’s books I inherited from her.

If you know children who are dealing with a big loss, this little book is really good medicine. It encourages kids to welcome their sadness. It models how to cherish special memories of departed ones, the way Frog remembers how Badger taught him to ice skate and gain self-confidence, and the way Fox  remembers how Badger taught him to knot his tie properly.  The book also highlights the importance of story-telling and grieving as a community.

Below is a youtube video of Badger’s Parting Gifts, read in the wonderful voice of Ruby Dee. If the story moves you, please get a copy, or two, or three, so you can read it or give it away to grieving friends. The illustrations are exquisite.

If you are looking for more stories to help grieving children, here is a wonderful list of 101 books compiled by Daniel Szczesniak. If you would like to receive my newsletter updates, you can sign up for them here.  And if you would like to know what my mother taught me while she was dying, I invite you to read My Mother’s Last Spring.


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life mothers us in many ways

On mother’s day this year, I received a beautiful sms-card from my friend Laura, who like me, knew early on in life that she did not want to become a mother in the conventional sense of the word.  Neither she nor I ever regretted our choice to walk a different path as women.  Her lovely note read: “Sending appreciation to all of us who share our mothering energy as friends, caregivers, healers, and earth lovers.”

Later that same day, one of my mentors also wished me a Happy Mother’s day, thanking me for “mothering” his newsletter.  I was really touched by their respective acknowledgment that mothering can take many forms.  Their messages prompted me to revisit a letter I wrote a year ago to several women who are dear to me.  I am posting it here on my blog this year, in the hope it might reach and touch a few more hearts.  

May 17, 2017.  Today is Mother’s Day, and I am aware that it might be a beautiful and celebratory day for some of you, and a challenging day for others.  Some of us have grown up with wonderfully loving, caring, and supportive mothers.  And some of us have been raised by troubled, neglectful, harsh, abusive or violent mothers. Some of us had mothers who were consistently “there for us.” And some of us had mothers who were unable to give us what they did not receive, were deeply preoccupied with their own challenges, or sick, or dying, or no longer with us.  Many of us experienced a combination of these positive and painful scenarios. Some of you are now mothers yourselves, and this may be a year that you feel deeply fulfilled and appreciated, or it may be a year that you are in challenging conflicts with your children, worried about them, or grieving their absence.  Some of you might be longing or trying to become mothers and this day may bring up the ache in your heart.

What initially prompted me to write to you today — wherever you happen to locate yourself in this big spectrum of possibilities — is a beautiful message Rebecca Solnit posted on facebook.  It touched me a lot and I wanted to invite you to read it, and then meet me back a few paragraphs further below.

By Rebecca Solnit

Mother is both a noun and a verb. Some people had great mothers but lost them, some had or have mothers who never mothered them or stopped mothering them for some reason, treated them as adversaries or as worthless, and Mother’s Day can be a punitive day for all those for whom this is true. The other half of the question of what there is to celebrate is what mothered and mothers you, how you mother yourself, how you celebrate and recognize what cares for you and takes care of you, and what you care for in return.

I remember once looking at the Pacific Ocean, to which I often reverted in trouble, and thinking “Everything was my mother but my mother.” Books were my mother, coastlines, running water and landscapes, trees and the flight of birds, zazen and zendos, quiet and cellos, reading and writing, bookstores and familiar views and routines, the changing evening sky, cooking and baking, walking and discovering, rhythms and blues, friends and interior spaces and all forms of kindness, of which there has been more and more as time goes by.

And of my own mother I wrote, in The Faraway Nearby: Like lawyers, writers seek consistency; they make a case for their point of view; they do so by leaving out some evidence; but let me mention the hundreds of sandwiches my mother made during my elementary school years, the peanut butter sandwiches I ate alone on school benches in the open, throwing the crusts into the air where the seagulls would swoop to catch them before they hit the ground. When my friends began to have babies and I came to comprehend the heroic labor it takes to keep one alive, the constant exhausting tending of a being who can do nothing and demands everything, I realized that my mother had done all these things for me before I remembered. I was fed; I was washed; I was clothed; I was taught to speak and given a thousand other things, over and over again, hourly, daily, for years. She gave me everything before she gave me nothing.

May you locate the ten thousand mothers that brought you into being and keep you going, no matter who and where you are. 

May you be the mother of uncounted possibilities and loves.

I have been loving and pondering these questions:

“What mothered and mothers you?
How do you mother yourself?
How do you celebrate and recognize what cares for you and takes care of you,
and what you care for in return?

While I was grieving the loss of my birth mother a few years ago, working through the complicated emotional impact of her premature departure, I discovered a book which became a great source of nourishment and support.  It was called The Emotionally Absent Mother: A Guide to Self-Healing and Finding the Love You Missed.  Reading it was an eye- and heart-opening experience for more reasons than I can count, but I’ll share two of them here.

Early on in the book, the author (Jasmin Lee Cori) offers a bird’s eye view of the essential archetypal roles a mother plays.  Here is her list: mother as Source, as Place of Attachment, as First Responder, as Modulator, as Nurturer, as Mirror, as Cheerleader, as Mentor, as Protector, as Home Base.

She then goes on to explain what each of these roles actually involves. It was comforting to understand what my mother did wonderfully well. She was a phenomenal cheerleader, for instance.  And it was also helpful to understand what she was not able to offer, and I had not even known to look for.  Suddenly I had a clear map of the developmental gaps in my life, as well as a new way of noticing who had showed up along the way to fill some of them.  It really helped me to appreciate how blessed I have been with the kind of motherly love and support I have received from many women, and some men, over the years.

The other thing I loved about the book is a passage where Jasmin Cori lists essential “Good mother” messages.  I love reading and re-reading them. I find them deeply healing, and I wanted to share them with you further below for Mother’s Day,  so you can both celebrate the mother you are (whether or not you actually have children), and appreciate the 10,000 mothers in your lives who have poured honey into your heart, and given you gifts you may not have received from your birth mother.

In my own life, the experience of Mother’s Day is every year different.  Some years have been really difficult, particularly May of 2009 and May of 2010, after I lost my grand-mother and then my mother, who both died mid-April, one year and three days apart. This year, on the other hand, was really sweet.  I had a two hour Skype call with my sister in Paris, remembering together what we loved most about our mother, and sharing with each other the qualities she had which we see in each other, and want to carry forward.  A few days ago I wrote a post (titled my Mother’s last Spring) to mark the 7th year anniversary of her passing, and share some of the things I learned from her while she was dying.  What I have learned since she died is that life mothers us in many ways, and building my capacity to notice and receive love and caring from all these sources really helps me be more grateful for all my mother was actually able to give, and more accepting of all she could not.

The Good Mother Messages
adapted from Chapter 1 of Jasmin Cori’s book:
The Emotionally Absent Mother

I am glad that you are here
I value and welcome you.
It’s ok for you to take space.

I see you
I can mirror you with attuned responsiveness.
I know you well, what you like and don’t,
what is hard for you, what makes you life easier,
what soothes you.

You are special to me
for who you are,
for your essence,
not your image.

I respect you
as a distinct and unique being,
with your own gifts and capacities,
preferences and goals.
I won’t try to control you.

I love and cherish you
I feel connected to you.
I appreciate you.
I cherish you.
And I express this
with my touch, tone of voice,
eyes and facial expression.

Your needs and feelings are important to me.
You can turn to me for help.
You are a priority to me.
You don’t have to hide your needs
or take care of them yourself.

I am here for you.
I’ll make time for you
You can count on me.
I won’t disappear on you.
I am here as a consistent presence in your life.
You can relax and trust me.

I’ll keep you safe
I will protect you.
I won’t let yourself
be hurt or overwhelmed
as you plan and explore.

You can rest in me
I realize that if you have to be on guard, you can’t really rest.
I can offer you a protected space, where you can be yourself,
and feel soothed and comforted.

I enjoy you.
You brighten my heart.
I like to spend time with you.
You are precious to me.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I enjoy hearing about what my writings sparked for you, so feel free to let me know.
And, if you want to read more, the best way to catch new blog posts is to subscribe to my newsletter.


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a daughter’s disclosure

I have two fathers.

Some of you know that,
and some of you do not.
Some of my relatives know one,
but never heard of the other,
at least not that I know.

I have two fathers.

This challenging fact of my life
has been exhausting to carry quietly
and manage gracefully.

How this came to be is a complicated story
which I do not wish to share here
out of love and respect for all involved
and my own need for privacy.

But on this 4th of July,
I want to claim the freedom to say
that I have two fathers,
that one gave me his name
and the other his genes,
that both loved me imperfectly
but cared enough
to ask for second chances;
and I am very grateful
for what they did give me.

I have two fathers.

Why say so publicly?

Because I want to be free
from the oppressive grip of secrecy
and all the ways it has stifled my voice,
my heart, my energy.

Because one of my dads just passed away
and seeking to hold back
the sadness in my heart
has not felt good nor right.

I want to be free to acknowledge
who we were to each other,
and honor him, as his daughter,
for giving me the gift of life.
He has had a big place in my heart
long before I first met him
when I was nineteen.

Our journey was not easy.
We enjoyed each other greatly,
but lacked the skills and strength
to navigate the twists and turns,
and significant third parties
that impacted our story,
prompting us to bow out
of each other’s life a few times.

Two summers ago,
he wrote to me out of the blue,
after thirteen years of silence,
offering the olive branch
I had stopped hoping for.

We entered our own version
of “truth and reconciliation,”
explored our differences,
forgave our limitations.

We had our sweetest Summer,
Fall and Winter that year,
before he became gravely ill,
and fell silent again.

I called him Phil,
but it always touched my heart
when he signed his letters
“Your American dad.”

I still have my French father,
the one I’ve always known as my dad,
the one I call “Papa” rather than Jean-Jacques,
the one who has loved me as his own since day one,
though we did not share a roof very long.
He too has tried to do his very best
to reclaim missed opportunities
and compost our painful past into a story
we could feel good about.

His nobility of heart,
his kindness and steadiness,
have been an inspiration to me,
and I wear his name proudly.

So, here it is,
that simple truth
I want to share openly:

I have
two fathers,
both precious to me.


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my mother’s last spring

“And if this isn’t a day when your universe has tilted and something precious you take for granted has not been suddenly irrevocably lost, bow before the mystery and let gratitude wash over you for the miracle of life, health, and this brief walk on our fragile planet.” ~ Carolyn Moore

It was a late afternoon in August of 2007 when my mother told me. I was in Western Massachusetts, getting ready for the opening night of a yoga teacher training. She was in Paris where she had been living for the last 25 years. We hadn’t talked in a few weeks, and I could tell from the tone of her voice that she was not calling bearing good news. “Are you ok?” I asked. “Are you sitting?” she answered. I wasn’t, but immediately sat on the edge of my bed, bracing myself. “I did not want to tell you right away, but I found out a month ago that I have cancer.” She paused for a couple of seconds, and then added… “cancer of the pancreas.” I don’t remember anything she said after that nor how I responded. I just remember the sinking feeling that my universe had just tilted and something precious I had taken for granted could very soon be gone and “irrevocably lost.”

She was 64 at the time, full of life and projects she was excited about, in a happy relationship with someone she had met five years before, and in love with her work.  She did not want to die. And I was not prepared for that either. She was calling to tell me she would be undergoing surgery a week later.  I got in a plane to France to be with her. The surgery went well, though the prognosis remained grim. In the weeks that followed, I did a lot of research and came up with what I thought were good ideas about what she could do to optimize her chances, but she was not particularly receptive to any of them. I was especially struggling with her decision to follow her doctors’ recommendations to undergo conventional chemotherapy, even though her gut was saying no.  As I was confiding my frustrations to a friend, she said: “If you ever get cancer, you’ll get to do it your own way.  But this is your mother’s cancer, and she gets to choose how she wants to deal with it.” That was clear wisdom delivered straight from the heart, and I heard it. So, I did my best to learn to become a caring witness to my mother’s journey, and find ways to support her without trying to interfere. One thing that really helped us was a book called Help Me Live: 20 Things People with Cancer Want You to Know. She and I read it together.  It gave us entry points and words for the challenging conversations we needed to have.  One day, I asked her these two questions (1) What do you find most and least helpful about the ways people respond to your illness and engage with you? And (2) What do you usually tell friends and relatives of someone with a life-threatening illness? She was at the time the director of the psychology department of a big hospital in Paris. A big part of her work involved supporting terminally ill patients and their families. She was also facilitating weekly support groups at the League Against Cancer. Accompanying people with life-threatening illnesses had been part of her daily life for more than 20 years. She knew a lot about what I needed to learn.

These were her answers to my questions.

What do you find most helpful?

Friends who ask me how I am doing rather than making assumptions.  I like when people ask me: “How are you?” and “How do you feel?”  That feels very different than people who say “I hope that you are feeling as good as you look” or “you look really wonderful.”  Those last comments do not leave me much space to be where I am.  I appreciate people who simply listen to what I have to say, and don’t volunteer advice without first asking me if I want it.  It’s exhausting and confusing to hear everyone’s advice.  And it’s upsetting when people assume that they know what’s best for me.  I am grateful for people who are comfortable enough with themselves that they are able to talk about my illness and my fears. I also appreciate people who can do things with me without focusing on my cancer all the time.  It feels good when people are still able to be with me in sickness as they used to be when I was in good health: friendly, happy-going, calling me up, and inviting me to do things, even if I cannot always say yes because I am sometimes too tired to do anything.  One of my friends regularly calls to say he’s thinking of me and wants to know whether he can drive me to my chemiotherapy session.  We don’t necessarily talk about the cancer every time we connect, but he never avoids the topic, and he always asks how he can be helpful. I appreciate friends who acknowledge that I’m dealing with something challenging, but still treat me normally.  I need to feel normal, and not just be defined through illness.  I appreciate friends who are willing to take time to be with me, and let me know I can count on them for that.  I also appreciate people who can be honest about their own fears, and sometimes say things like “I feel sad that you have to go through so much, and I don’t always know how to support you, but I am here.”  I also really appreciate encouragement, people who help me believe in my capacity to heal, as well as people who make plans with me, and help me look forward to the future.

And how about least helpful?  People who have strong negative or melodramatic reactions: “Oh my God, I need to sit down. This is terrible news!”  People who respond through the lens of their own fear or discomfort and want me to feel better so that they can feel better. People who systematically avoid the topic of my illness and pretend that nothing is going on, or always want to talk about something else.  I prefer when people give me the option and say: “we don’t need to talk about what you are experiencing right now, if you’d rather not, but please know that I’m ok with it.” People who constantly give me advice, and have a hard time letting me just be where I am.  People who try to fix me, rather than walk with me.

What advice do you give to the friends and relatives of people with a severe illness?

Let your loved one lead.  Only talk about what they are actually ready to hear.  Sense what they have the capacity to process.  If they are not able to face the prospect of their own death, don’t force it on them. Do not lie, but do not say more than someone is ready to face either. Find ways to let them know that you are open to talk about anything, but let them lead. What people who are ill most need is to feel loved, to know that they matter. Feeling loved is the most healing thing. Don’t shower them with advice. Shower them with love.  Another thing: gentle physical touch, like holding someone’s hand, is very comforting to people who are afraid.

Her answers to my questions really helped me navigate our conversations better, but sometimes, I would still be at a loss with what to say.

“Do you think I’ll make it?” she asked me once anxiously.  I knew she wanted me to say “of course, I do,” but I could not say that, because that would have been a lie.  And so, I spoke what was true: “I really hope you will, but I really don’t know what is going to happen.”  I was desperately wishing that she could end up on the right side of the distressing statistics for pancreatic cancer, but the odds were too damning to count on that.  Later, when my mother was in the final days of her life at the hospital, I got to talk with a colleague of hers who used to work in her palliative care unit. When, I told him about our exchange, he said sweetly:

Sometimes, it’s best to return that kind of question with another question. “Are you asking me this question because you are scared?”  If you listen carefully to their answer, they will tell you what they are ready to hear.  The best way to let them lead is to answer their question with a question.  “Why are you asking?  Are you feeling anxious and needing to be reassured?”  

It was too late to course correct by then, and for many years, I regretted the way I had answered her question.  I wish I had been more skilled, and could have been of more comfort to her at times.  What put this regret to rest was a beautiful thing I heard Ken Cloke say in a mediation training he facilitated last Fall in California. I think he was talking about how to forgive oneself, when he said: “I learned to dedicate my mistakes to those who come after.”

That was a beautiful attitude, I thought. And it helped me realize that I do now know a better way to talk to someone who is scared for their life. And this is what inspired me to write this post, in case this could help a person or two out there.

On the morning of my 40th birthday, I called my mother from Indonesia, and found out she had just been rushed to the hospital an hour earlier. She had survived her initial diagnosis by nearly 3 years, and though the cancer had returned a year after the surgery and spread to her liver, she had continued working full time to that day.  But now the wind had turned. She had just suffered a brain stroke and was lying in a coma in the same hospital where she had accompanied many others to the end of life for the last 20 years. I got on a plane the next day, not knowing whether I would arrive in time to say good bye.  She miraculously woke up right as I landed in France, and lived another 5 weeks which I was blessed to spend by her side in room 714 of the Hospital Montsouris.  We had many beautiful heart-to-heart moments together until she fell unconscious again a week before she died. Toward the end, one of her colleagues took me aside and said he had noticed her fingers and toes were turning blue, and this meant she would likely die within the next two or three days.  And then he added: “In our work, we have learned that mothers sometimes have a hard time leaving while their children are in the room.  So, it would be kind to give her the choice, and let her sleep alone at night from here on.”  I was really moved by what he said, and followed his advice. She died at dawn a couple of days later, shortly before my sister and I returned to see her.  To this day, I remain profoundly grateful to this man for sparing me any guilt about not having been with her when she took her last breath.

A couple of days ago, as I was finishing this piece, a very touching short video came to my attention. It is titled The Life of Death and was created by Marsha Onderstijn, a talented Dutch animator. It beautifully captures what my mother taught me while she was dying, that death can be gentle, and filled with love and caring.

Her name was Nicole, and she died on April 21, 2010, seven years ago.
This Haiku came to me one night I was holding her hand and watching her breathe.

Springtime in Paris.
Trees and flowers are blooming
while she is dying.

______________________________________________
This post was also published on Gratefulness.org on June 29, 2017
You can post comments or reflections there, if you wish.


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bridging the gap

It’s Martin Luther King day,
and I am sorry to say
the racial wealth divide
has not gone away.

Some researchers say it’s 7 to 1.
Others 17 to 1.

While we can debate
the best measures
and exact ratios
(see links further below),
there is no denying
racial inequality remains
a revulsive reality.

Quoting MLK’s wise words,
which I too love to do,
will not help bridge that gap,
unless that sparks us to face it,
rather than skip right over it.

So, I want to invite all MLK fans
on the privileged side of the divide
to be color brave
rather than color blind.

Today is a good day
to take a rigorous look
at that racial wealth gap,
and ask:

What will I give and do this year
to fulfill MLK’s vision
of a beloved community
and make racial equity a reality?

Here are some readings,
with the sad facts and numbers
we need to shift.

 

Research Papers

The Ever Growing Gap by the Racial Wealth Divide, the Institute of Policy Studies, and CFED (August 2016)

The Racial Wealth Gap, by Demos.org (2015)

Articles

Blacks still far behind whites in wealth and income,” Money.cnn.com (June 27, 2016)

The Widening Racial Wealth Divide, the New Yorker (October, 2016)

Programs

The Racial Wealth Divide Initiative, by CFED

Books:

The Color of Wealth: The Story behind the U.S. Racial Wealth Divide by Barbara J. Robles (Author), Betsy Leondar-Wright (Author), Rose M. Brewer (Author), Rebecca Adamson (Author), Meizhu Lui (Editor)

 


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banking on life

Are you inspired by what your bank is doing for your community and the larger world?  What kind of future is it funding with the backing of your deposits? more oil pipelines or more renewable energy? more segregation or more inclusion? more plutocracy or more democracy? Do you know?

What are you backing with your banking, and how strongly does that align with your values?

When I found out that Chase was amongst the 17 banks funding the Dakota Pipeline, I took it as a call to deal with the uncomfortable fact that my banking had not been wholly in sync with my values. Some of my financial needs and habits were at odds with my heart’s desire to be amongst those who help preserve clean water, protect indigenous lands, and build a clean energy future. What was I going to do about that?

I have had a checking and savings account at Bay Federal for a while. It is a friendly and environmentally conscious credit union based in Santa Cruz (CA), and I feel good about banking there. Before that, I banked at a small community bank in Eastern Massachusetts, and I felt good about that too.  But for a mix of personal and practical reasons, I have all along continued to use the Chase account I opened when I first moved to the United States 27 years ago.  Back then, I was 19 years old, and pretty clueless about the banking system, and the workings and impact of big banks. I was even more clueless about the kind of negative or positive power my small account could wield when joined with millions of others. I just needed a bank close to my school, and found it at the corner of 113th street and Broadway in New York City.  It was actually a Chemical Bank branch at the time, but Chemical was later acquired by Chase.

My first real introduction to the mystifying world of banking came in 2004, when I was invited by a working group at the Rudolf Steiner Foundation to attend a gathering focused on Transforming Money at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Petaluma.  There, I met Stephen Belgin, who co-authored New Money for a New World with Bernard Lietaer, a finance professor and former central banker from Belgium, who became a leading figure in the complementary currency movement.  At the time, their book’s galley was titled “Of Human Wealth: Beyond Greed and Scarcity,” and it opened my eyes to the workings of our debt-based money system.  I became friends with both Stephen and Bernard, and learned a lot from them.  In 2010, I built Bernard a new website to help his work reach a wider audience. This was shortly after the 2008 banking debacle, and I wished more people had an opportunity to read his out-of-the-box “Options for managing a banking crisis.” That same year, I befriended Katie Teague, and became an enthusiastic fan of her Money and Life documentary which interviews thought-leaders and activists working to transform our money system and the way we think about money.  While these innovators were shifting my understanding of the big picture issues, organizations like Green America were inspiring me to rethink my personal relationship to money, prompting me to start banking local a few years ago, and get rid of any credit card I held at big financial institutions.

Since 2008, I contemplated numerous times leaving Chase altogether, but could not bring myself to give up certain privileges which a local bank does not typically offer, particularly when you are new to it.  These hard-to-give-up benefits included the $2,500 overdraft protection I have had on my checking account at Chase since my student days at Columbia University, and the ability to use my ATM card anywhere in the world, without needing to notify my bank of my whereabouts and request prior authorization. As a nomad and researcher who spends most of my time away from my legal state of residence, having a reliable source of cash wherever I go is a pretty big deal.  My small credit union twice cancelled my debit card because of a security breach at a merchant I had used in the prior weeks.  On one of these two occasions, I would have been stranded without cash on the other side of the world, were it not for my Chase debit card.  For the last 25 years, it is Chase that served as my loyal and dependable companion abroad, including while I lived in Egypt in the late 90s, and in Indonesia in 2011-12.  International transactions and wire transfers were always easy.  The occasional temporary hold placed on my debit card would get lifted just as soon as I cleared any security concern. And I had 24/7 customer service, which was a must when I was several time zones away from my branch for months at a time, before online banking came of age.

But what about Chase’s larger impact on the world, and all the financial scandals?  The biggest bank in the United States has become infamous since the 2008 crisis for its corruption and abuses of power, from gambling on derivatives, to rigging foreign currency rates, to trying to bargain its way out of accountability.  As recently as last November, Chase was in the news again, sentenced to pay 264 million dollars in fines for bribing foreign officials.  How could I stay loyal all these years to a bank that violated my values in more ways than I can count? Or, more to the point, how could I violate my own values for so long?  I really don’t like the answer to that question, but here it is: the seductiveness of convenience, the power of habit, and some hard-to-explain form of emotional attachment.  Over the years, I came to know my routing and account numbers by heart, and somehow grew attached to them. My overdraft line of credit had regularly tied me to the next pay check during my student days, and again during a rough financial patch I had six years ago.  Keeping that safety cushion felt reassuring, even when I was not actively using it.  More generally, I knew what to expect and what I could count on.

So, what finally resolved me to break up with Chase?  A big part of it was the courage and determination of those who stood on the front lines of resisting the fossil fuel industry at Standing Rock, in spite of police brutality, and the freezing cold.  Was I truly not willing to incur a little discomfort and disruption in my financial life in order to align my heart and actions, and do my small part of defunding dapl and similar pipeline projects?  All the reasons I had for staying with Chase suddenly crumbled in light of what these activists were willing to go through. Emboldened by Sarah Van Gelder’s “Dear Chase Bank” break-up letter last November, I resolved to close my own account, and started looking for another bank that could serve as a backup to my credit union, and perhaps offer some new solutions to my logistical challenges.  It did not take me very long to find Beneficial State Bank, an exciting community development bank based in Oakland that is part of the Global Alliance for Banking on Values, and is focused on economic justice and environmental sustainability.  What actually inspired me to join that new bank was not so much its financial services and logistical capabilities, which are fairly similar to my credit union’s, but its approach to banking, its commitment to funding the new economy, and its active leadership in the socially responsible banking movement.  I wanted to be part of that, and planning to write a longer post about why in the coming weeks.

In an interview with Conscious Company Magazine, Kat Taylor, the co-founder of Beneficial State Bank, said something that really spoke to me: “We consider banking to be the original and most powerful form of crowdfunding.  We all pool our deposits so that we can finance the communities and world in which we want to live, and also borrow it back from time to time when we have needs — like home, college, and even retirement — if we haven’t had the privilege of saving.”

As an enthusiastic crowd funder who has been involved in many campaigns these past few years, I know how meaningful and satisfying it is to pool small contributions with others to support people and projects that inspire us. The possibility of relating to my bank deposits in a similar way really captured my imagination.  I am thrilled to be joining a bank that is committed to funding renewable energy and sustainable agriculture, cares about social justice, and sees the banking system as “a system of distributed power where the depositors are the ones driving the outcomes by their choice.” I will be closing my Chase account in the coming weeks, and no longer feeling conflicted about it.   Yes, I am losing 24/7 customer service, and giving up a few other things, but I am getting the peace of mind that comes from aligning my heart, mind and actions, and reclaiming my sense of integrity.  And I am also discovering wonderful new possibilities, like having a dedicated banker at Beneficial State Bank by the name of Stanley who goes out of his way to be helpful to me. It’s very different from calling a customer service line and talking to a different ‘representative’ each time. I love knowing there is specific human being I can call, email, and count on when I need support.

And how about you?  How good do you feel about your bank?  Do you need help finding a better one? Here is a place to start.

I want to leave you with a few questions to ponder. What if your banking could become your favorite form of crowdfunding? Where would you need to bank in order to feel that way? Who in your social network is already banking on solutions, rather than banking on problems? How could they help you make a similar shift? And if you are already in love with your bank — and I know many of you banking at local credit unions are — how could you invite or support relatives and friends in your community and social network to join you in aligning their money with their values? Maybe Ralph, the Kid Banker could help start that conversation?

In December, the US Army Corps of Engineers denied the easement for the pipeline project in North Dakota, but as long as companies like Energy Transfer Partners are backed by powerful big banks, and can afford to pay the fines involved in disregarding rules and agreements, the threats to clean water and Native American lands remain.  And yet, these big banks that are funding the fossil fuel industry are only able to wield the power they do because they are backed by millions of people like you and I who entrust our money to them without thinking about how our deposits are being leveraged in the world.  But what if we started to get a lot more rigorous and responsible about who and what we are backing with our banking? However small our bank account may be, we all play a role in undermining or strengthening the possibility of a banking system that finances life-affirming projects and possibilities instead of funding environmental degradation and perpetuating social inequities.  We make up the banks, big and small, and we need to learn how to personally embody the greater levels of accountability, transparency, integrity, and social responsibility which big banks are blamed for violating.  For some of us, this may need to start with taking a closer look at our practices, and choosing a better banking partner.


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