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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 publicly
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 deeply 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 immensely,
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 many 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


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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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staying grounded in wild times

What keeps you centered and meaningfully engaged in these wildly challenging times?  As distressing news continually floods our screens, and opportunities for numbness, overwhelm, despair, and fear grow exponentially, I practice re-grounding myself in simple commitments to:

(1) build my capacity to engage more skillfully with conflicts and craziness rather than be a complacent or ineffective witness

(2) explore and own my part of this multi-dimensional mess rather than join the finger-pointing fest

(3) sharpen my discernment and tuning in skills so I can stay focused on where I am most drawn and best wired to serve

(4) remember that I am only one in seven billion and that trying to do more than my part is exhausting and self-defeating, and in the end not as helpful as inspiring and encouraging others to play their part, and making space for their stepping forward.

(5) share what I am up to rather than tell others what to do, so we can support and embolden each other to find and claim our authentic piece of the larger puzzle, which for some may involve being on the front lines, and for others may involve taking care of a sick child, or writing poetry for these times.

(6) be receptive to others’ suggestions without losing my internal sense of direction

(7) track / learn from / support eldersmentorskindred spirits, organizations that are meaningfully, constructively, and skillfully engaged

(8) practice reaching across divides to dismantle prejudices, repair harm, “compare hallucinations” (as my friend Miakoda Taylor puts it in her Fierce Allies trainings), and build bridges rather than walls

(9)  vote every day with my heart, attention, imagination, energy, money, and actions for the world I know is possible, however hidden from sight it may be

(10) fiercely protect sleep, meditation, and a daily walk from the temptations to sacrifice them for any reason

(11) be the hummingbird in Wangari Maathai’s short story, trusting that, in times like ours, even small acts of engagement are better than sitting by the sidelines, lamenting what is happening

(12)  follow my friend Kristi’s recommendation to keep death front and center at all times, to remember what matters most, keep priorities straight, and appreciate all that deserves appreciation, even amidst challenges

(13) learn from those who already know know how to live in the heart of darkness and try to call back those who get lost in the underworld

(14) enjoy every opportunity for a good laugh

(15) stay in close geese formation with kindred spirits, discerning when it is time to step out in front and lead in some way, and when it is time to step back, rest, or be the wind in others’ wings

And how about you?
What keeps you sane and centered?


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ashes to ashes

Coffin - NYT article

Photo by Robert G. Fresson

For folks who feel nourished by authentic conversations about the very unpopular topic of death and dying, it’s a relief to stumble upon people who are willing to face their own mortality.  And Jeffrey Piehler, the author of “Ashes to Ashes, but First a Nice Pine Box,” does that beautifully, and in a way that’s unusually brave, tender, and filled with humor.  Reading his words in the Op-Ed section of the New York Times Sunday Review reminded me of what I learned when my mother was dying four years ago: facing death can be incredibly enlivening.  It’s an opportunity to get real with ourselves and each other about what matters most.  And it goes without saying that the sooner we do that, the better!

For Jeffrey Piehler, stage four cancer made death very real and proximate.  As he tells the story of why and how he built his own coffin, three passages touched me especially:

“We each spoke of what we wanted to accomplish with our remaining lives, and what we regretted in our pasts. The coffin slowly took on its recognizable shape, prompting me to speak of my fears of death and of leaving my family behind. In moments like this, we set aside the tools, and we would sit and talk quietly.”

The project has smoothed the rough edges of my thoughts. It’s pretty much impossible to feel anger at someone for driving too slowly in front of you in traffic when you’ve just come from sanding your own coffin. Coveting material objects, holding on to old grudges, failing to pause and see the grace in strangers — all equally foolish. While the coffin is indeed a reminder of what awaits us all, its true message is to live every moment to its greatest potential.

I’m inspired by the way this man is befriending the end of his own life, and grateful for his willingness to be public about it.  What a great gift.  As a once-in-a-while poet, I especially loved the ending:

“I find comfort in knowing where my body will lie, and just above it, embossed on the underside of the coffin’s lid, in front of my sightless eyes — my favorite line of poetry: “I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.””

I invite you to read the whole story which begins when Jeffrey Piehler announced his plan to his wife and a friend, over a glass of wine.


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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...
article post

my mother’s last spring

“And if this isn’t a day when your universe has tilted and something precious...
article post
thumbnail Antelope heart article post

bridging the gap

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

banking on life

Are you inspired by what your bank is doing for your community and the larger world?...
article post

staying grounded in wild times

What keeps you centered and meaningfully engaged in these wildly challenging times?...
article post
thumbnail Sunflower spark article post

ashes to ashes

For folks who feel nourished by authentic conversations about the very unpopular topic of...
article post