Space Any Can Soften Into

out of body

Out of Body

 

Before I knew how to make my eyes march

in rows following shapes called words,

before I could cross the street

without a taller hand to hold,

I worked to stay in the small body

my being was given.

 

If not for careful attention I drifted.

Became a squirrel on the branch

muscles ready to leap,

nose a nervous twitter, ever wary

though I only wanted

to see furry playfulness.

Became J.P. down the street

licking lips already chapped and bleeding

jeering smaller children loudly

to silence a chest ribbed with sorrow.

This made it harder to hate

the bully he seemed.

 

At night I kept blankets pulled tight

but still, the room grew so large

my bed became a tiny speck

and me, a traveler.

From a vantage point I didn’t seek

I saw dark houses hunker on endless streets,

cars pull like magnets along lines of light.

Within them people carrying their lives

with so much effort when all around them

was this space any could soften into.

 

I pulled back and back and back,

searching for and sharpening

my own edges.

Even though I stay in this body

sometimes I drift

sliding through as we all can

from me into you.

Laura Grace Weldon

Find more poems in my collection, Tending.

Secret to Longevity

secret to long lifeWe humans, along with several other higher species, need elders and elders need us. From our early ancestors to today, this need is coded into our biology and shapes how we survive.

Take elephants as an example. They live in family groups led by the oldest females and walk long distances as they search for food. When the group encounters potential danger such as possible predators or unfamiliar elephants, the matriarch signals if they should continue grazing or gather into a defensive huddle. Researchers say families with the oldest matriarchs are best able to determine genuine threat.  The older the matriarch, the less energy wasted on false threats and the more calves  survive, a clear connection between wisdom of elders and success of the community.

Or take orcas. Female orcas stop reproducing around the ago of 50 and can live another 40 years. (Male orcas tend to die much sooner.)  Older females take on a leadership role. When hunting, the matriarch generally swims at the head of the pod and directs its movements, using decades of hunting experience to find elusive prey. Researcher Lauren Brent is quoted in a Smithsonian article saying,  “One way post-reproductive females may boost the survival of their kin is through the transfer of ecological knowledge. The value gained from the wisdom of elders can help explain why female killer whales and humans continue to live long after they have stopped reproducing.”

(I wonder if one of the many reasons elephants and orcas die many decades younger in captivity than they do in the wild has to do with being robbed of their essential roles as providers and wisdom-bearers.)

Which leads us to the evolutionary benefit of human grandmothers. Decades ago, anthropologist Kristen Hawkes developed what she called the “Grandmother Hypothesis.” Dr, Hawkes demonstrated (now with an updated mathematical model) that women historically live so far into their elder years because  there’s a significant survival advantage to the family when grandmothers pitch in. From the earliest roots of humanity, grandmothers gathered food, helped raise the young, and reinforced social cohesion. Children whose grandmothers helped nurture them were more likely to survive, perpetuating genes that selected for women who experience mid-life menopause and vigorous old age.  Dr. Hawkes argues that grandmothers, in our evolutionary past, helped bring about bigger brains, pair bonding, even a doubling of the human lifespan. Grandmothers, she contends, make us human.

But what about grandfathers, aunts, uncles, other elders who live nearby? It seems the Grandmother Hypothesis doesn’t go far enough.  Evolutionary anthropologist Michael Gurven says increased survival and group cohesion has to do with “embodied capital” — the kind of knowledge that is acquired by experience and transmitted to others.  More effective hunting strategies and more skilled foraging is passed on by example, helping one’s people thrive.

Our very biology is rooted in and stirred by the need to protect our community. Even the sleep patterns of elders may stem from what benefits our tribe.  The dark hours have, throughout time, been the most dangerous for humans. But if we look at variations in sleep patterns across a spectrum of ages, we see why it wasn’t necessary to post sentinels at the campfire or at the doorway of the hut. Healthy old people tend to go to sleep earlier, don’t sleep as deeply, wake more easily, get up earlier, and may need less overall sleep.  Teens and young adults stay up later, sleep more deeply, and wake later.

As evidence, consider a recent study of members of a Hadza tribe living on the Tanzanian savanna. It was found that sleep variability meant at any point during the night, 40 percent of adults were wakeful and able to call an alarm if they perceived danger. Researchers call this the “poorly sleeping grandparent hypothesis.”

Today we consider the sleep habits of teens and elders aberrant compared to adults,  pathologizing variations that came to us as a legacy of ancestral strength built by diversity.

Elders need to live as long as possible in order to pass along their earned experience  to the youngest generations. But elders are valuable to a community for another evolutionary reason— essentially living on or sacrificing themselves to benefit the young. At least that’s what  theoretical biologist Josh Mittledorf  speculates in Cracking the Age CodeHe says our species long ago passed out of individual Darwinism into a sort of collective evolution as a way of protecting our communities from collapse.

According to Dr. Mittledorf, elders live longer or die younger based on biological responses to different community conditions.  Here’s how.  When times are very hard the population is at risk, particularly because it takes a great deal of exertion to get enough food to raise the young.  Elders feel the imperative to work hard and eat less for the good of their community. In many cases, they are also vitally needed to care for children.

In contrast, when times are easy the population is not at risk. Abundant food gained with less exertion means the young are likely to live to adulthood. Elders don’t feel compelled to do taxing work and they have plenty to eat. The community’s overall need is for more space to make room for an expanding population.

Let’s look at the messages an elder’s mind and body perceives in these two very different circumstances.

When times are hard, elders are needed by their families and communities. They sense they must thrive to keep their people going.  As research on aging tells us,  humans live longer in response to strenuous exertion, restricted calories, strong social connections, and a deep sense of purpose — precisely like these conditions.

But the imperative for survival may not be as strong when times are easy, food is abundant, and an elder perceives he or she isn’t essential to the family. Again, research on aging tells us that abundant food and minimal exertion, and perhaps a sense that we’re unnecessary or even in the way, leads to an earlier death.

We humans thrive when we are needed. That starts in our earliest years. Watch any toddler beam when he’s allowed to turn on the coffee grinder or run the hose over the car —- children yearn to take on real responsibility and to make a real difference to others. Strong social connections throughout life are so important that research affirms loneliness is as great a health risk as substance abuse, injury, and violence. In fact, chronic loneliness increases the chance of developing dementia by 64 percent and the risk of early death by 45 percent.  Our survival is linked to having an essential and valued role in the lives of others. 

Our whole beings know at the deepest levels that we live for one another. Time to embrace that, for the sake of our own lives and the sake of our collective lives.

“Your life and my life flow into each other as wave flows into wave, and unless there is peace and joy and freedom for you, there can be no real peace or joy or freedom for me. To see reality–not as we expect it to be but as it is–is to see that unless we live for each other and in and through each other, we do not really live very satisfactorily; that there can really be life only where there really is, in just this sense, love.”

~Frederick Buechner

Rescuing a Desperate Creature

empath humor

Early mornings are dark and quiet in November. I put on my boots, coat, and hat to walk out with a bucket of kitchen scraps in hand. I pause to appreciate mist rising from the pond and autumn’s complex scents. Some mornings I chat quietly with birds and trees as I head back to the barn. Other mornings I sing.

This particular morning I’m wearing a heavier coat against the cold, a bright orange hat, and carrying a bigger pail than usual. As I walk I notice a muted squeaking sound. Immediately, I picture it coming from some small creature. I imagine its dark desperate eyes. Maybe it is trapped or injured.

I slow. Already the squeaks have become harder to hear.

I stop. The squeaks stop too.

Poor wary little thing, I must be close.

I walk slowly toward tall grasses lining the creek. A few distressed squeaks can be heard. I pause, hoping intuition might tell me where this little animal is hiding. There’s probably nothing I can do, but if it’s trapped I can free it. If it’s injured I might be able to move it to a place safer than the side of a flood-prone creek.

I stand still, listening.

Nothing.

Okay, I say to myself. It’s your imagination.

I head back toward the barn.

The squeaking starts up again, rhythmic and anguished.

Logic is late to this adventure, but it finally clicks in. I’m carrying a large bucket, one we left out on the cold porch overnight. The squeaking noise I hear is the frozen handle rubbing against the sides. I stop to confirm. The squeaking stops. I feel silly. I also feel, against all reason, enormously relieved for the imaginary creature that’s no longer in distress.

I take a deep breath and continue on toward the barn, ever more grateful for the peace of the day.

I hope your morning is less emotionally fraught.

Only imaginary animals were imperiled.

This post shared from our farm site, Bit of Earth Farm

Time Turns Back on Itself

 

A post from the wayback machine, although it feels like yesterday to me…

memoir, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer

“He fit right into the palm of my hand,” my mother always says.  Her arm trembles now when she holds it out. “His head here,” she gestures to her fingertips, “his little bottom here, and his legs curled up at my wrist. They never gave poor patients the incubators. They said babies that small didn’t make it anyway.  But he looked right at me and I knew he would live. I held him every night in the nursery until he was discharged. I wish I knew what happened to him.”

My mother’s stories of her early years as a registered nurse are becoming more common topics. I settle back and listen, encouraging her with my questions. The house seems darker each time I visit, curtains drawn against the daylight although family photos on every surface still fade in their frames. The cluttered rooms are hard to recognize as the same ones from my childhood. Time seems to stretch and bend out of proportion on these long afternoons.

“I nearly died of a staph infection when I was in nurses’ training. It was all through my bloodstream. The doctors were amazed I pulled through.” She shakes her head.  “It was a miracle.”

My two teenaged sons come in from doing yard work. They wash their hands, eat the snack she loves to offer them, and politely chat with her. She has tales to tell them too, usually emphasizing the value of working hard and saving money. Today she asks them to retrieve a bit of laundry she can’t reach. Somehow it sailed over the washing machine lid to fall somewhere behind the washer. Tossing anything while hanging on to a walker is an accomplishment for someone whose movements are as uncertain as hers. I thought I’d heard all her stories, yet she tells the boys that her laundry throw probably stemmed from her teen years when she used to be quite the softball pitcher.

“I never was never much of a runner in gym, but I had a great throwing arm.”

I am surprised. “You never told me that, Mom!”

“There’s plenty I haven’t told you,” she says.  Her gaze seems to linger on a field of high school girls from 60 years ago.

My father doesn’t settle down for long conversations during these visits.  He likes to work in the yard with his grandchildren, making use of their youthful energy, while my mother and I talk. I go outside to spend ten or fifteen minutes with him, reveling in the quieter connection we share, fully aware that my mother waits for me to return through the full length of each minute I’m away from her.

I see my parents bridging the passage beyond old age in their own ways.  My father redesigns the garden and invents odd labor-saving devices, always thinking ahead. My mother goes back to revisit her stronger years.

I am greedy for time. I want decades more with my parents despite their poor health. Their tradition of waving goodbye at the door as I back the car out always brings tears to my eyes.

On the long drive home my son comes across an old Emerson, Lake, and Palmer tune on the radio. Time twists around itself again.  I recall listening to this record in the late 70’s, from the same house we just left, although the raspberry-hued carpet of my girlhood bedroom is now under a pile of boxes. I used to climb out the window of that bedroom to lie on the rough-textured roof, looking at the stars. I paid such close attention to the music of my teens that I felt wrapped inside the notes and the lyrics.

“You see it’s all clear. You were meant to be here.” While the song plays I remember being a wispy 14-year-old  who bought batik scarves from the forbidden head shop in town. I twisted them into halter tops which I wore under more demure shirts until I was safely out of the house. I’d tell my parents I was going to see a girlfriend when I was really meeting my boyfriend. He and I kissed so much I was surprised my mother didn’t notice I’d return with chapped and reddened lips.

When the song ends I’m almost startled to find myself driving a car—a woman in her forties accompanied by two nearly grown children, married to the boy she kissed so long ago.

As time turns back on itself in our memories it reshapes and teaches us. It occurs to me I loved Emerson, Lake, and Palmer because they honored the two sounds I couldn’t imagine converging. I had rejected my parent’s organized religion, and with it the evocative strains of organ music. Instead I spent my babysitting money on albums with sounds that stirred my soul.  Emerson, Lake and Palmer put hymns and rock back together for me. As I head south with my boys, I’m also lying on the roof with my back safely against my childhood home and my face lifted to the sky.

I try to say something to my kids about how odd time and memory can be. But they’re young and the radio dial needs flipping. I guess we’re bridging our own passages. I take a breath, choosing to hold on to the peace of this moment so this exact car ride with my sons will always feel as close to me as the palm of my own hand.

Originally published in the anthology,  Here in the Middle: Stories of Love, Loss, and Connection from the Ones Sandwiched in Between

We Are Not Powerless

Clarion Reminder

 

The powerful provoke the powerless

to push against one another.

Their power grows by keeping us

in all kinds of prisons.

 

Yet we are not powerless.

 

Remember the black bear

roaming Clarion County, Pennsylvania,

its head trapped a month or more

in a metal-ringed pail.

 

Remember those who chased it for hours,

grabbed it in a perilous embrace,

carefully sawed loose those tight bonds.

Imagine what they felt as the bear

ran free into the woods.

 

Imagine too, the bear.

 

Laura Grace Weldon

Originally published in Writers Resist.  Find more poems in my collection, Tending.

Accused

Witch trial Salem, Massachusetts, lithograph by George H. Walker, 1892.

Nearly 20 years ago we moved to the small Ohio township where we still live. We were taken aback to find we weren’t entirely welcome. Soon after settling in I was told by several neighbors I should remove our Halloween decorations, since that marked me as being on the side of Satan. I was also informed I should take down my sign supporting the local library levy, because the library allowed children access to that bastion of evil — the Internet.  A few weeks later, simply admitting we weren’t the correct brand of born again Christian resulted in a de facto death threat.

But we hung in there. We planted fruit and nut trees, along with raspberries, asparagus, and other perennials. We built barns and fenced pastures. We intend to live here until we’re so damn old that we can’t feed livestock or preserve our harvest or take a daily walk. If nothing else, we’re resilient.

Still, it’s not always easy.

Here’s one example. A few years ago, our regular postal carrier actually asked me if we were devil worshipers. He was apparently alarmed by a large outdoor mosaic I’d made out of broken dishes and other memorabilia left to me after my mother died. He perceived the crescent moon shape, a shape we all see every month in the sky above our lovely planet, as somehow malevolent. I was too surprised by the question to  answer him.

But, of course, I have no concept of what it’s really like to be perceived as a dangerous influence.

An ancestor of mine paid for that with her life.

My cousin Becky recently dug through all sorts of records to complete a family history. She confirmed stories we heard when we were growing up, that we were descendants of a woman convicted and executed in 1692 during the infamous Salem witch trials.

My sister and I remember being told that this woman had been exonerated after her death so that her children could again attend church. We were wrong. She wasn’t officially exonerated until 2001.

Scott was accused of ‘certaine detestable arts called witchcraft and sorceries’ that she ‘wickedly, mallitiously and felloniously hath used, practised and exercised’.

Margaret Stephenson Scott was one of the last women hung for the crime of witchcraft in this country. Unlike depictions in popular books and shows about the Salem witch trials, she wasn’t young and pretty. She was elderly. A victim of class structure. A victim of other people’s guilt. A victim of a rigid us-versus them culture. Another victim in a long history of women who were slaughtered for being different.

Margaret was born in England around 1615 and came to the colonies with her parents as a child. She grew up to marry an indentured man, Benjamin Scott, in 1642. They moved to Rowley, Massachusetts in 1651 and Benjamin was declared a freeman in 1664. Of their seven children, only three survived to adulthood. Margaret’s husband died when she was 56, leaving her nearly penniless. Still, she survived on what he left her for nearly 21 years. By the time she was 77 years old, she was reduced to begging to survive.

She asked wealthy townsman Thomas Nelson for wood in payment for a debt he owned her. He refused to pay, and claimed his cows acted strangely afterwards, with one of them perishing. He blamed Margaret. She asked another wealthy townsman, Jonathan Burbank, if she might glean corn from his field. He refused, although his wife gave Margaret some corn. Later when his oxen refused to move, Burbank accused Margaret of bewitching them.  Historians call this “refusal guilt syndrome.” When people of means refuse to help those in need, they feel guilty, and deal with their guilt by aggressively vilifying the person who caused such feelings.

A teenaged servant formally accused Margaret of sorcery after what may have been years of rumors.

Margaret was convicted on the basis of spectral evidence ( the accused person’s spirit or spectral shape appeared to a witness in a dream and maleficium evidence (misfortune to one’s property or health blamed on someone who was a nuisance in society). She fit the profile of women accused of witchcraft in New England; loss of children, low stature in the community, and poverty.

Margaret was the only person from Rowley, Massachusetts to be accused of witchcraft. She maintained her innocence throughout her imprisonment and trial. She was found guilty on September 17, 1692 and hanged five days later — in the last group of people to be executed for this crime.

William Phips, newly appointed governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, overruled and disbanded the court soon after, perhaps because his own wife had been accused of consorting with the devil. He ordered that courts disregard spectral evidence, pardoned several people sentenced to die for witchcraft, and released over 100 people awaiting trial.

Gratitude Works In The ER

The practice of gratitude isn’t large enough if we’re only grateful only when things are going well.  I’ve written before about appreciating our doubts, mistakes, even our crises.  Trying to see difficulty as another blessing helps get us past the need to separate our lives into good and bad, putting us right into the seamless whole of a fully lived life.

It’s also not easy.

That concept became more evident to me when I ended up in the ER a few months ago. How I got there is a story for another time, since this tale takes place entirely in an MRI machine. Such machines are a nightmare for someone as claustrophobic as I am. Heck, I even avoid being the first person to slide in a six-person restaurant booth because two people between me and open space is too much. Unfortunately, patients experiencing any kind of neurological emergency* can’t receive medication to reduce MRI-related anxiety. The test was necessary to diagnose what was going wrong and it had to be done immediately. 

A doctor, nurse, and several other people stayed in the room with me as I was loaded into the narrow tube. I willed myself to be calm. Electronic beeping and buzzing, whirling and whacking started. It sounded quite a bit like the machine was falling apart. 

“You have to lie completely still,” I was told. I thought I was lying still.

I was cold. I was in pain. I felt trapped in that tight space, even more trapped because my head and neck were locked in a “cage” clamped to the bed. I didn’t know what was wrong with me but I’d already been told I might be having brain surgery after the MRI.

I prayed silently, but my whole body trembled. I asked my beloved deceased parents to be with me, the trembling continued. I tried affirmations, which seemed to make the trembling even worse. I was cautioned that the test might have to be repeated if I couldn’t stay entirely still. I couldn’t imagine going through it again, nor how I could do any better. 

Then I considered this might be my last day. What did I want from it? To appreciate every moment I had left. I began bringing to mind all I was grateful for, starting right there. I thought of the care I was getting and the wisdom of the people in that room. I realized how fortunate I was to be getting this help. My body started to soften into the experience. I pictured the faces of my loved ones in turn. It seemed as if they were right there too. By the time I decided to picture autumn trees, blue skies, and singing birds the cage was being unlocked from my face. 

Gratitude definitely isn’t a switch to turn on only when things go well. It’s a light that shines in darkness too.

 

*I’m going to be okay.

What the Onion Teaches

What the Onion Teaches

 

Anything, seen wholly,

teaches everything.

Take a raw onion, harsh to its core.

Unpeel, unring, and hold to the light.

It is complete as the soil, sun, and rain

of its making.

 

Sauté the rings in oil

till the onion relaxes into itself,

elevating everything added next.

 

This looking, this warmth, and trust

is how the prisoner finds Shakespeare,

the lonely child discovers trees,

the battered woman pulls away layers

ready to be seen.

Laura Grace Weldon

 

Originally published in Shot Glass Journal.  Find more poems in my collection, Tending.

The Great Turning

I’m thrilled to offer a guest post by Ellen Rowland. This essay is adapted from her recently published book, Everything I Thought I Knew: An Exploration of Living and Learning. 

I sat at the small table by the kitchen window this morning thinking about hope. The news was bad. Again. Acres of majestic trees destroyed by fire, hurricane devastation, floods and loss, missiles and political misfires. So many people in need of each other, divided by both real and imagined borders. Yet in that quiet moment as my children still slept, I felt a strong pull to lean into the beauty around me, the calm, to focus on the small acts of kindness that don’t always get talked about and believe in their power. Did I have a right to be hopeful when the world was so clearly hurting?

If you’re deep ecologist Joanna Macy, and others like her, the answer is yes. Not only do you have a right to be optimistic, but an obligation to unearth that hope, spread it around like topsoil, and help something infinitesimal or resplendent grow. I stumbled upon an article recently by Macy about the book, Stories of the Great Turning, which helped validate my stubborn penchant for hope. It celebrates the ever-growing movement of individual action through a collection of stories about grassroots activism taking place around the world.

A few days later, my family and I watched the French documentary Demain (available with English subtitles as Tomorrow) by Cyril Dion and actress Mélanie Laurent. It takes us all over the world to introduce us to people who are finding creative solutions to the world’s problems and putting them into action on an individual and community level. The film shows us the positive global strides that are being made in the areas of agriculture, energy, economy, democracy, and education. The examples convey the idea that, while we cannot deny the global problems we’re facing, we can choose to focus on the change that is already in motion.

These aren’t merely messages of hope. Neither are they a call to action. Both Stories of the Great Turning and Demain are telling us something we deeply suspect but desperately need to know — that all over the world, in hidden corners and small enclaves, people from all walks of life are already creating lasting positive change.

Because these thinkers and doers of seemingly small acts are not celebrities, politicians, or industry giants; we may not hear about them in the mainstream media. In fact the gentle propagation of these tales usually gets done the old-fashioned way — by word of mouth, or as my daughter says, “on the wings of dragonflies” — which is testament itself to what Macy calls the “remarkable expansion of allegiance beyond personal or group advantage.”

In other words, we lead, or participate, or engage, or invent, or inspire without caring if we ever get recognition or reward. We do it because we feel in our very souls that it’s the right thing to do. Even if our efforts ultimately fail, the lesson lies in the attempt.

Joanna Macy writes in her introduction,

“This wider sense of identity is a moral capacity more often associated with heroes and saints; but it now manifests everywhere on a practical and workaday plane. From children restoring streams for salmon spawning, to inner-city neighbors planting community gardens, from forest defenders perched high in trees marked for illegal logging, to countless climate actions to limit greenhouse-gas emissions, an undreamt-of wave of human endeavor is under way . . . (The Great Turning’s) three main dimensions include actions to slow down the destruction wrought by our political economy and its wars against humanity and Nature; new structures and ways of doing things, from holding land to growing food to generating energy; and a shift in consciousness to new ways of knowing, a new paradigm of our relation to each other and to the sacred living body of Earth.”

All this just makes me want to run outside and whoot with joy! But for most of us it’s hard to dig our teeth into the potential collective outcome of all these scattered individual efforts. Especially when we are bombarded on a daily basis with mindless listicles on one hand and horrific world news on the other. At any moment the global bubble of doom and fear might pop right over our heads. Can we really make a difference?

Well, yes, especially when “we” becomes “WE,” which happens quite naturally when individuals come together to provide support, collaborate, share resources, and work as a unit while maintaining individuality.

The paradigm of positive change taking place isn’t just about the environment. It’s about accepting the notion that in anything in life that’s worthwhile, there exists polarity. It’s about accepting and embracing each other’s differences. It’s about mutual respect and compassion. It’s about taking risks and daring to think differently. And it’s about learning differently. I can’t help making this leap because it’s really only a small stepping stone from one to the other. How can we distinguish between the consciousness we hope to awaken on behalf of a suffering planet and the world we want to open up for our children? They are the same.

Which is why those of us who foster interest-led learning, who have lived through learning and learned through living, need to keep sharing our individual and collective tales as part of this Great Turning. And we don’t need to shout. As it is, many of these stories naturally intertwine children’s exploration with a love and respect for Nature. They demonstrate the innate consciousness that children have toward creatures and the compassion they hold for others. Many homeschooling families are already living with “our sacred living body of Earth” in mind through lifestyle choices. Sharing these tales is not about bashing the institution of school or judging parents and children who choose to attend, and it’s not about imposing or insisting on change.

If I understand it correctly, this movement, which Macy calls “the essential adventure of our time,” is about individuals inspiring change through positive action and example. And sharing our stories of gratitude and hope. The shift may come about slowly. But it’s coming. I can hear the wings beating.

 

Ellen Rowland Ellen Rowland is the author of Everything I Thought I Knew, a collection of essays about living, learning, and parenting outside the status quo.

Her writing has appeared in Life Learning Magazine, The Homeschooler Post, Otherways Magazine, The Washington Post online, More Magazine, and Natural Life Magazine.

After spending 15 years in New York City, where she built a career in art and design and met her French-born husband, she and her family moved to Senegal, West Africa when her children were three and four years old. They built an earth house, lived off-the-grid, grew their own vegetables, and began the journey of learning through living. She and her family currently reside on a small island in Greece where they plan to restore a goat barn and call it home.

Catalysts

Sometimes in my memoir classes I ask participants to write about catalysts in their lives — small occurrences or choices that, upon reflection, we realize actually fostered a big change in our outlook or circumstances. Often I start out with a poem by Carl Dennis, who is a master at exploring parallel realities. Something like “Candles” or, if the class has been meeting a long time and can withstand it, “The God Who Loves You.”

Some catalysts exist on a large social scale, such as prejudice, rural isolation, poor schools, or economic change. They have all sorts of effects on individual lives. Like the government grant I was awarded to get my masters degree. Before I attended my first class, a newly elected conservative administration didn’t believe the country needed more social workers, so they cancelled the grants. This, coupled with a recession that made it hard for me to get a job with my freshly awarded undergrad degree, led directly to my husband and me having our first child when I was 22.

Some occurrences exist only as possibilities. For example, on a recent weekend I headed toward the highway after teaching a class for Literary Cleveland only to remember I’d left behind my new water bottle. I turned around, parked in the lot, walked back in, searched for the bottle, then realized I’d had it with me the whole time. I’d tucked it in my tote because this new one didn’t leak. I felt silly having gone through all those steps for a memory lapse, only to drive back to the highway entrance ramp where rescue vehicles were just then getting to the scene of a car accident. I have no idea if mine might have been one of those cars had I been there a few minutes earlier.

Some results stem from what seem like, at the time, poor choices. Like the time my friend Kathy and I went to Westgate Mall. We were both 14 years old. We didn’t buy soda or food, but we loved music desperately and considered spending the last of our babysitting money on records. We told ourselves we’d walk the nearly six miles home rather than take the bus. We figured it was good exercise. We were still in the record store when Kathy ran into two guys, Bruce and Mark, who were friends of her older brother. They seemed vastly older, both being 16. They offered us a ride home. I definitely wasn’t allowed to get in cars with boys my parents didn’t know. We shouldn’t have accepted, but we did. I asked to be dropped off at Kathy’s house so I could walk the rest of the way home. That way my parents wouldn’t know I’d broken a rule. I dated Mark all through school and I’m still married to him today.

In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the idea that small changes can lead to significant results. Theoretically, the flapping wings of a butterfly in Brazil can have an effect on weather patterns thousands of miles away.  Nothing we do is without effect either. That’s true in every moment, in every generation. If your grandfather hadn’t lost his job and moved to another town to take a new one, he wouldn’t have bumped into that smart girl who lived the next street over, the girl who later became your grandmother. If your mother’s high school crush hadn’t broken her heart, she never would have gone on to fall in love with your father. If these and thousands of other circumstances hadn’t unfolded exactly as they did, you wouldn’t be here now.

As my mother used to say, “Life is lived forwards, but understood backwards.”

Trace back changes in your life to some small precipitating factor — a pivotal conversation, a left instead of right turn, a friend’s comment, a lost opportunity, a new dream. Please, share the story of a catalyst. We’d love to hear it.