Oh, the waves…

12×12, acrylic on canvas
I never thought of 
The ocean as tapestry
A blanket of moving surf
Until you mentioned
My blue-green fibers
Pattern and strong weave

But I’d always known waves
Were the key, a curve
To ride upon. That somehow
I’d be a sailor. And you,
All of you, would be
My seafaring companions

© Amanda Reilly Sayer, 2021

Locker room talk: getting pronouns right and more

I am always delighted by conversational surprises, when a superficial conversation prompt takes an unexpected turn into deeper territory. This morning, I had the pleasure of talking about gender with some older women in the locker room, following an otherwise neutral query about Thanksgiving. I’m sure it helped prime the conversational pump that one of the women knew of my professional background. “You’ll appreciate this,” she began, “One of the kids coming is a girl who has decided she is a boy.”

Interestingly, a version of this transgender conversation has been coming up quite a bit in my world lately. Maybe it’s that I seem like someone who is open to hearing about it. True. But I suspect it’s also because gender exploration is more acceptable for the current generation of young people and the older people in their lives are having to figure out how they want to respond. Cool!

After noticing my locker room friend’s obvious struggle to know what pronouns to use for this newly transitioning young person, I said, “I have some transgender people in my life and I know from experience that he will really appreciate your efforts to get the pronouns right. He’ll feel really cared about by your willingness to use he/him when you refer to him. If you say the wrong pronoun, it’s no big deal. Just correct yourself without a fuss and move on.” This seemed to ease the anxiety of this former nurse, her need to be a caretaker answered. Could I have corrected her on the “girl who has decided she is a boy” thing? Yes. But I generally find support to be more effective than correction. Maybe we’ll talk more at some point.

“I just don’t understand how this is different from being a tomboy. That’s what we called this in my day,” the conversation continued. “Yeah, it’s interesting,” I said, briefly noting my still wet bathing suit and the towel covering my body. “I was a tomboy…probably I still am in a lot of ways. Although I don’t especially have a need to define my gender one way or another at this point in my life, I’ve wondered how my gender identity and decisions about gender expression might have been different if I was growing up now.”

I’m well aware that this is sometimes the place in conversation when I get the sense I’ve gone too deep for other people’s comfort. That isn’t so unusual for me – ha! – but I’ve learned to tolerate awkward silences and to tread back to the superficial, as needed. This time I didn’t need to.

“That’s so interesting,” the other woman chimed in, “We were just talking about this after a lot of wine around the fire pit…and I think it was freeing for these 60 something year old guys to see they weren’t alone in having a feminine side. And how it was permissible for a girl to be a tomboy, but not whatever the opposite would be for a guy…how that’s changing now.”

“Yeah, totally,” I said. “I think this younger generation is really showing the way…because binary thinking is kind of limiting, right? I mean, most of us fall on a spectrum in lots of dimensions of our lives don’t we?” (Yes, I really talk this way…for better or worse – LOL!)

They agreed!

Now, I understand not everyone agrees. I’ve had a version of this dialogue go other, less satisfying ways. There are also a lot of nuances I didn’t pursue with my locker room friends. But I love that these conversations are happening – in locker rooms, around fire pits, and dinner tables – if imperfectly. Because they are the way of progress.

To all who are pushing the envelope of self-expression, being true to yourself however that shows up, I see you and am rooting for you!

Convergent Losses, Invisible Strings

John Lennon reminded us that life happens when we’re busy making other plans. Today, I was similarly reminded that life continues, even when we’re busy grieving the loss of it; that love is both the foundation of grief and the way through it. 

Lisa and I agreed to meet at a beach halfway between where we each live. I’d walked the same stretch of beach countless times and thought I knew roughly what to expect, anticipation stacked loosely by experience. I was right to predict the easy rhythm of conversation with an old friend, the gentle acknowledgement of Lisa’s past and pending losses, my own healing grief. But I could not have imagined the surprise to come, or the feelings evoked.

After walking, talking, and letting the low-tide expanse fill our hollow places, we were greeted by a yellow lab and two women sitting on a bench near the parking lot. The dog calmly approached and honored me with several mature dog kisses, deliberate and measured. She then turned to Lisa, offering her a similar greeting. “What a sweetie,” I called to the women on the bench. “I recently lost my dog.” They smiled, understanding. 

We briefly chatted about some related details – how old my dog was when she died, how old their dog is now, where we all live – before one of the women added that this was originally her son’s dog. She pointed to the memory plaque behind her on the bench, “This bench is in memory of my son.” We could see he died from melanoma when he was only 37 years old. “Wear sunscreen,” she added.

Turning back to the dog, the woman smiled and said, “This is Chapin.” Lisa and I looked at each other, mouths open, before I explained, “That was my dog’s name too! She was also a yellow lab.” What are the chances?

Now, I believe in coincidence. I don’t think EVERYthing is a sign or filled with special meaning. As Freud famously said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” But some things feel like signs. Or at least feel bigger than what is immediately apparent, which is sometimes pretty big already. This was one of those times. Not only because I felt my Chapin’s love in the other Chapin’s kisses, even before I knew they shared a name. But because the random meeting of mostly unrelated humans revealed an otherwise hidden connection – shared loss and deep love. And what’s bigger? Except to recognize and share in the vulnerability of being present to it.

Lisa had earlier said she was due to get home where her mother, awaiting another cancer treatment, was taking care of Lisa’s nearly blind dog. Still, we lingered in the parking lot, first with our new friends, then with each other. I’d brought Lisa a painting to borrow, a painting I hoped would offer soothing energy for her and her family during a challenging time. We looked at it together for a bit, then hugged goodbye.

It was only after we parted that I felt overcome, washed through by a feeling hard to name. My eyes filled as I pulled away from Chapin Beach and remained so as I drove along the beach access road, but my vision was sharp enough to notice the other Chapin and her two companions walking along the beach in the distance. I stopped briefly to take a picture, a visual reminder of the threads that had briefly connected us: grief, love, dogs, and the beach they were named after. I was newly overwhelmed by another wave of feeling, more expansive than the low tide beach, something like the inhalation of clouds, lifting my grief like a helium filled balloon.

So many of the best things are difficult to explain and seem reduced by the telling. Such moments of gnosis are rare, or at least they have been for me, even as I am aware I’ve been long searching for that very thing – the palpable awareness of something bigger that lives in and connects everything, the invisible strings made visible.

Though I miss my dear Chapin. And Lisa grieves the loss of her baby, just as the woman on the bench still cries for her lost son. Although I wonder, as we all do, how to go on after losing and whether love is worth the price. I feel the tug of so many seen and unseen connections, and know I am held in their braided net. And that is enough to keep me daring, heart open, to love again and deeper still.

Wish You Were Here

16×20 acrylic on repurposed canvas

There is a story about this painting, but I’m not quite ready to tell it. Or maybe I just don’t know how to tell it well, so I’ll let the image stand as it is. I’m also aware that the story about this painting is unfinished, perhaps the reason it can’t yet be shared. Which got me thinking about our stories more generally. When and with whom we choose to tell them. And how we manage the ending…

I welcome your thoughts ❤

Memories of a 4th Grade Love Note

This morning, without any clear stimulus, I was treated to the memory of a note I once received from a 4th grade classmate. The note was written on an unlined piece of pulpy paper, the kind designated for math problems, and folded into a small careful square. Above a pencil sketch of a toilet, the note read: “Don’t let the turkeys get you down.” It was a decent rendering of a toilet, leaving no question about what it was, but I remember wondering about it. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have drawn a turkey?

While I may have been confused by the mixed metaphor, I treasured the note. How or whether I responded I don’t recall, but I believe I recognized it as the love note it was, not only because it was signed, “Love, Matt.” And I’d like to think I was demonstrably grateful in some way, but I’m not sure that’s true.

What’s interesting for me to think about now, especially as I conjure an image of my 4th grade self, is that I don’t remember being outwardly vulnerable enough to warrant such a specifically encouraging note. I wasn’t a victim of bullying. I wasn’t really teased at that age. In fact, I’m pretty sure I did what I could to appear immune. Was that also the same year I brought a pocket knife to school? Quite possibly.

Now, I don’t want to paint the wrong picture here. I wasn’t a bad kid. Rough around the edges, yes, but generally a rule follower and a serious student. I was also quite sad and angry a lot of the time, but I didn’t think that showed, at least not at school.

It’s funny now to consider whether my internal struggles were more transparent than I realized, at least to Matt, whose kindness registered even then, but not nearly as much as it does now. It takes a special kind of person to see what lies beneath the masks we wear, the lies we tell ourselves about who we are, the things we try not to broadcast.

And it’s true I don’t really know what Matt intended to communicate. He was obviously repeating something he’d heard and maybe he simply liked drawing toilets and was intrigued by idioms. His conscious intent doesn’t really matter.

What does matter is the memory, 41 years later, the long echo of imperfect, innocent love. And my newfound appreciation for the the note exactly as it was, the toilet especially. Because I understand now, more than I possibly could have then, that life is indeed filled with bowls of shit, including those of our own making. We persevere by not letting the turkeys get us down, it’s true. But maybe the real secret is found in small acts of kindness, in seeing what lies beneath rough exteriors and writing love notes to whomever we can.

Group Therapy in the Aftermath of the 2020 Presidential Election

Many of us keep asking ourselves how it is that so many people still don’t get it! But it’s not only the people we agree with who are asking. And THEY, the members of the other side, think we’re the ones who just don’t get it. The irony would be funny if it wasn’t so painful. Still, it’s worth sitting with this for a few minutes. No matter which side we’re on, we are asking many of the same questions. And probably drawing similar conclusions.

Which makes me wonder: What else might be the same?

Now, before you answer, let’s pause and fishbowl this. That’s a technique teachers use to talk about difficult things, where part of the group talks and part observes. Let’s divide the group into sides and consider a few things together. There are a lot of us who don’t fit into a neat category, so let’s sort by skin color, the most visible thing. And let’s begin by having a white-person to white-person talk, while the non-white folks rest for a minute or two. I promise, I’m not looking to hurt anyone here. I’m not going to ask who you voted for. I just want to talk. For real. Ok?

Ok. Now, do what you need to do to feel safe. Cross your arms if you need to, but try to keep an open mind if you can. And let’s begin with one of the elephants in the room. We’ll get to everyone’s concerns, but let’s start by acknowledging the non-white perspective since we’ve elected ourselves to be the ones talking first. Ready? 

You’ve heard it before, but let’s say it again. BIPOC (that’s Black, Indiginous, People of Color) folks have been fearing for their lives and still do. That is a fact, not an opinion, whether or not you happen to think it’s a valid one. And they, at least as I understand it, are trying to figure out the rules for their survival, only to find that the rules keep changing.

Some of you might interrupt here to say, “Well then they should not resist arrest! They should comply, stop looting things!” Etcetera. Actually, many of THEM agree with you and they’ve tried that. Are they still dying? Yes. 

“But we’re dying too,” you say. Fine. Let’s put the circumstances and proportions aside for a second, because there is a point of shared empathy here for you, if let there be. Because, believe it or not, I hear you too. You’ve been saying, in different words perhaps, the rules keep changing for you too. And your perspective is valid too, so long as it doesn’t include a belief that only you should have the rights our country was founded on. That’s not fair.

Sorry, I know that last part was a bit provocative, but we’re all good people here aren’t we? So let’s come back together now and let some things sink in for a minute. Let’s stand in a neutral zone beyond our own fears and grievances for just a second, if that’s possible. You know, like Switzerland? Cuckoo clocks and all. 

How does it feel for YOU when the rules keep changing? What do you do when you feel helpless? Now pause and give yourself a hug. Or let yourself be hugged by someone else. I’m not being sarcastic here. This is not an easy conversation and hugs are good. 

Most of us don’t like to think about things that make us feel bad. But just for a minute, if you can, let yourself feel your feelings. All of them. Are you, too, worried you won’t survive, even if you play by the rules? Are you worried about keeping your job? Or finding one? Of having your freedom taken from you? Have compassion for yourself first. That’s important. And then, if you can, understand what it’s like to be in the other person’s shoes. Let yourself see what you have in common. The other isn’t a cartoon now, not a meme, or a caricature of your worst fears. Understand that everyone is afraid of something and that’s what we’re really fighting about. You are not alone here.

Now, remember all the people you’ve met and liked. Pick one different than you who you can even partly like, if not love. Think about your gay cousin, your Black co-worker, your white neighbor with the Confederate flag who also helped you change your tire that time. Let that be who is in the room with you now. That IS who is in the room with you now.

Who isn’t in the room are the so-called liberal elites you’ve heard so much about. They don’t want to have this conversation any more than the Republican elites, by whom I mean the ones in power. Because people in power, except for the really noble ones, want to keep it at any cost. And that cost includes you and me. That is the real problem here, and only an opinion, but it’s worth considering, no? Because if they keep us fighting, nothing changes, and they keep their jobs. Think about it.

And then, because this is important and will help all of the straight white folks in the room understand a point of major contention. Consider this. When you are a person of color or identifiably gay or transgender, you are worried about the jobs, the money, the health, the kids, the freedom, and the power. All the stuff. The same stuff. AND you are worried about the possibility of dying (or not being able to live fully) because the laws don’t always protect you. Would you want that to be your reality? Of course you wouldn’t.

Look, I know people have different beliefs about things and that rules become very important, even when they are outdated. Change is hard. Certainty is desired over most other things. But wasn’t our country founded on the wish for freedom and tolerance for differences? What is your highest value? What does it mean to be a patriot?

And which is worse? To die quickly or slowly. Because in some ways that is also what we are talking about here, much as we might not want to acknowledge it.

But here’s some good news, something you might want to know. There is a secret to avoiding a painful death. It’s called transformation. Evolution, if you prefer. And not as in the thing some people want to keep out of science curriculums. Sheesh. Why must we make everything so binary? Science and God are not mutually exclusive. Especially if you believe God created everything, including the scientists. Do you see? Sorry. I know. I indulged myself there for a second. Back to Switzerland.

By transformation I mean allowing yourself to keep getting better. It hurts your soul, not to mention your body, when you insist on staying in the same clothes you were raised with. You know?

And I know that what’s happening now isn’t all about the lives of Black or Brown or Indigenous people. It isn’t only about gay and transgender rights. Which I know is the reason so many want to say ALL lives matter, though I personally understand how and why that affronts. The contentiousness now, in so many ways, is about how we ALL want to live and by what rules we want to ensure our livelihood. Like it or not, we can’t really talk about living without thinking about how we’re afraid of dying. Which is partly why we get so twisted up and angry, especially if someone we love has already died for reasons that could have been avoided.

The powerful (primarily white men, yes, and no not all of you and not only men, but try to listen because I promise I am trying to help you)… The powerful typically operate by the idea they can only extend their lives by erasing the competition. This idea is reinforced by history, the reason the grip on the past is so firm for so many people. Do you wonder about the appeal of ‘Make America Great Again?’ It’s not directly a story about race or gender; it’s primarily a story about winning. A story about how to get back to the “winning” you once heard was possible in America if you followed the rules. It’s a myth, as many stories are, but it is a compelling narrative because it is about survival and winning. We all want to live. And truthfully, most (if not all) of us would rather win than lose. That is another way we are the same.

Now before I finish this lengthy pseudo group therapy session, I want to acknowledge the very many people who feel, “A vote for Trump was a vote against me (and my right to live).” You are so angry about the vote. Of course you are. Your feelings aren’t wrong. But I wonder if your interpretation of a Trump vote could stand some expansion. We only know why someone does what they do if they tell us. And even when they do, it’s still sometimes not a complete explanation. Because most of us don’t always know why we do what we do. And you know that’s true because even you can’t say for sure why you do everything you do. It’s part of being human not to know.

I have a hypothesis, though it too is incomplete, that everyone’s vote was, on some level, about their survival and the way they saw their own most likely to occur. They weren’t necessarily voting AGAINST you (though it might be the functional equivalent, I know), they were voting FOR themselves. “Exactly!” You say. Because you want them to care about you. And I don’t blame you. You deserve for them to care about you, whichever ‘them’ you are. 

The hard truth is, only the very compassionate are able to care about you as much as they care about themselves. And even then, when there’s a need for a tie breaker, you all know who you’re going to lean towards. 

Still, we have to grow compassion by whatever means necessary. And I’m not saying it has to start with one group, though let’s face it, those who have been harmed the most are often the most equipped. I’m actually saying compassion would be good for everyone because hating ultimately hurts the hater as much as the hated. You don’t believe me? Do you prefer a good mood or a bad one? It is almost that simple.

But back to the point I’m trying to make about voting: the opposing vote was both personal and not personal. We’ve learned to take care of our own first and we’ve narrowly defined what ‘our own’ means. We’ve all done it. I’m not telling you how to feel about it. I’m only suggesting you challenge your assumptions because it’s sometimes easier to make progress when we stop making it personal and when we understand the shared bits. I am speaking to everyone here.

Full disclosure, I’m no expert, nor am I pretending to be. Mostly, I’m just hoping to be a good facilitator and muddling through just like everyone else. I’m only offering my thoughts because I want things to be better. Like all of you. And maybe, if nothing else, this offering will be the catalyst for a way forward led by someone more capable than me. Maybe it will be you.

If you’re still reading, I’ll offer one final thought and some questions for reflection.

Most of what we think we know is incomplete. I believe we have bought into the story of survival of the fittest and we see examples in nature that reinforce this belief. But it’s not the only possibility. The other story is that we survive by finding better ways to peacefully coexist (and not just with our own species). These aren’t new ideas or new stories. I’m just reminding you.

Finally, find a quiet spot on your own and consider asking yourself the following: Do you want the few to survive? Or the many? How does your answer change if you imagine yourself a member of the few? If you are in the minority group already, how will you resist the temptation to recreate the nasty dynamic of oppression when it’s your turn to be one the many? This has been the shifting dialectic over time and we will keep trading power back and forth until we find a new way. You’ve cast your vote already, but it’s never too late to learn something new. What will you do now?


An Early Morning Conversation about Mars

I can see Mars from my kitchen window
Which sounds like it could be a metaphor, and probably is
Except, I mean I can literally see Mars
That red skinned beacon
Out there. The speck that reminds me how small I am
And also of how impossible things might be known
First from a great distance. Then close up.
But how do we get there from here? That is the question
That keeps me up at night
And while I’m awake, even half-asleep
I figure, I might as well keep looking
Because we never get there by not looking
Over and out there, but also
In here. And if we don’t want to go
Someplace we’ve never been
It might be important to know why not
To understand whether we are afraid of green men
Remnants of a cartoon we once saw
Or something else
Isn’t it funny how we give meaning to color
Red states, blue states, people and planets
As if we are still children learning to sort a giant crayon box
Trying to make something so big
Fit into our small hands
We know so little for certain except that
The universe is bigger than any one of us
And we are hurtling through space at a speed we can’t match
Mightn't it be prudent then
To keep our options open
To keep our hearts opener still
To open up the too small box and smash the cardboard with our grown up feet?
Maybe then, we’d be able to see
What the container has keep from our view
That we’ve made a very poor bargain for certainty
And also. Maybe Mars
With the friendly green "men"
Is closer than we think

© Amanda Reilly Sayer, 2020

Hold Your Flame High

The challenge now is to hold your flame high
Without seeking to burn others
It’s tempting, I know, to singe another on the way by
Especially when you’ve clawed your way out of darkness
And they have blocked your passage
When you have been burned
Near past the point of recognition

You did not deserve that
You did not ever deserve that
But you are not the only one with scars
And you must find within you the strength
To be better than those who’ve hurt you
Because you can and you are
Not when you are set alight with vengeance
But when you light the way for everyone

If you want a new story
You must allow for a new ending.
In every hero’s journey ever told,
There comes a time to re-know the enemy
Because the enemy is who you become
When you don’t use your light well
When you can’t honor your history
Without making it a weapon

Know your anger and guard your wounds
But do not succumb to hatred or bitterness
Nor direct your rage inward
No one is asking you to offer yourself as firewood

And understand this:
The way forward is now
There is an opening now
The darkness is lit with love

© Amanda Reilly Sayer (November, 2020)