Wednesday, February 12, 2020

This, I believe: the power of small things

A random photo on my phone - I have no idea what it was supposed to be - perhaps a reminder that what is essential is invisible to the eye.

A number of years ago, there was a segment on NPR radio called "This, I Believe" where people from all over the world submitted short essays on what was the core principle of their lives. Over the years, I tried to come up with my version of This, I Believe and today, I think I finally found it.

This, I Believe: There is power in small things. As children, we are taught to recite 'please' and 'thank you' and rather than see the act of saying those words as performative and inconsequential, I think it's the start of understanding gratitude and practicing empathy.

We struggle to thrive in a larger world that is often overwhelming and too often cruel. We are at the mercy of forces we have little control over: it has ever been thus. As individuals, there isn't much any one of us can do to directly affect those large forces and events, which doesn't mean we don't have a responsibility to act. It does mean that our actions must start with the small and the personal.

"What is essential is invisible to the eye."   

This is what the fox says to the boy in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Le Petit Prince. It's a line that has always stayed with me. I think of it when I smile at a stranger at the grocery store, or wave a driver into traffic, or thank the server for refilling my water.

None of these acts will stop wars, eliminate racism, provide education and clean air and water or control disease outbreaks.

But if I have the power to ease - even for a brief moment - the struggle of a fellow traveler, then I have added something to the world that is good. Maybe even inoculated that person - just a little bit - against the sting of a hard remark or the next micro-aggression they will experience. 

And, in the words of Arlo Guthrie's immortal "Alice's Restaurant":

And can you, can you imagine fifty people a day, I said
fifty people a day walking in singin a bar of Alice's Restaurant and
walking out. And friends they may thinks it's a movement. 
But instead of singing a bar of the song, it would be fifty people, a hundred people, a thousand people a day saying 'please' and 'thank you', smiling at a stranger, acknowledging the humanity of those around us in so many small, but vital ways, well, that would be a movement.

And none of this takes the place of working for systemic change. But I believe it's a vital underpinning to that change.

Think of each member of the human race like a particular neuron in an infinite neural network. A universal brain, if you will. Every act is an inhibitory or excitatory impulse in that brain. Our small, individual brains function on the sum of all those neurological signals. If there are n+1 excitatory impulses, the neural signal is sent. If there are n+1 inhibitory impulses, the signal is held.

Perhaps our greater world functions similarly, with the sum total of positive and negative actions influencing the large forces that in turn create the conditions in which we live.

This is not magical thinking.

Think of one moment when you received a small grace, a tiny respite from the morass of your day's fight. It could have been as simple as a friend showing up with a coffee for you, unexpectedly. Or a letter in the mail. Or someone letting you go ahead in the grocery line. Think of how those small moments resonate and change you. How they lift you from the river bottom and the rocks. These moments, as brief and as fleeting as they are, are not inconsequential. No, they are vital and they are essential, and for the most part, they are invisible to the eye.

There is power in small things. Not to change the world, but to change each of us. And that is the only way we will change the world. This, I believe.

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Friday, December 13, 2019

Trusting my subconscious

The Fountain of Trabazon: An Oracle Deck by Julie Pepper

Earlier in the Autumn, I attended the Paradise City art festival in Northampton, MA. It's a beautifully curated art show with a wide variety of artists and craftspeople. I usually wander, doing a lot of 'window shopping' and comparing notes with other ceramics artists, but this time, I stopped short at a piece of art that was filled with color, energy, and narrative.

It turns out that the artist - Julie Pepper - is a local Central Mass artist and that we know folks in common.

Her paintings were also available as the illustrations in a 56 card oracle deck and I bought it.

I had learned a bit about Tarot reading for a novel I wrote some years ago and find reading the cards to be a way to free my subconscious and help me in my creativity.

This morning, I pulled out Julie's deck and prepared to do a past/present/future spread. The question in my mind as I shuffled the deck was about my writing and how to move through the resistance I've felt all year.

Here is my interpretation of the reading, using the Divinitory Guide as a starting place.

The leftmost card represents the past.

Card 31: South Africa
Spirit is telling you to listen to your body. 
Can you be open to your body's changes?

There have been so many changes for me over the past year. I'm in menopause - a time of great transition both physical and emotionally. In addition, I've been dealing with some nagging health issues. It makes sense that my creative energy has been sapped by the demands of my body and its changes. I've been working hard to accept where I am and embrace this new phase of my life. In many ways, I am stronger than I've ever been, notwithstanding my nagging knee and wrist pain.

The middle card represents the present.

Card 48: Ophelia
Wearing your heart on your sleeve?
Trust yourself.
Can you believe in your intuition?

It's been a strange year. The year I didn't write. As a writer, perhaps I should have been far more distressed about that than I have been. Instead, I've been focusing on other creative pursuits - knitting, crochet, and yarn spinning, ceramics, working on our farm. And I have been content. I feel a deep sense of being home in my self. Seeing this card and its interpretation is right on the nose for where I am now. My subconscious has known all along that I'm on the right path.

The rightmost card represents the future.

Card 32: Choice
Pick your own music, choose your own steps.
Have you forgotten you have choice?

The question on my mind as I prepared the cards was how to return to my writing discipline and will I find that joy again.And considering this card, it occurs to me that my question was one created from a place of fear. And fear is not a healthy place to cling to in making choices. I don't need to be afraid. I am picking my own music and choosing my own steps. Fear doesn't need to trap me: I have the power of choice.

This is what I will tell myself, when the fear rises up again.

Be patient with yourself - so much is changing in your life. You can trust in your own power and intuition. Your choices will take you where you need to go. 

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Thursday, November 14, 2019

A Lesson in Listening

StarField Farm
photo by Chris Howard

3 years ago, we purchased a home in Central Massachusetts. Since we don't live there full time, I knew I wanted to establish myself as part of the community and am on the board of a local organization, used local tradespeople for our construction, and joined a local social group.

It's a small, rural town, not far from the Quabbin reservoir and still has its primary focus as an agricultural community.

Being a 'come-here' rather than a 'born-here', I work hard to be sensitive to local concerns and adapt myself to the community, rather than the reverse. It has surprised me how easy it has been to feel comfortable and at home in a rural setting, given that I spent a lot of my formative years as a NYC girl.

All of this is a preamble for a meeting I was called to attend at the town planning board.


We are planning to install a ground-mounted solar array of 24 panels which will pretty much take care of all of our electrical needs there. In order to get the required town permissions, I had to speak to the planning board who had to grant several waivers from the way the solar regulations had been written. (They were created for large commercial solar farms, not meant to apply for household use.)

As part of that process, a public notice was sent inviting any interested parties to also attend and speak about the project.

One of our neighbors came to the meeting. When I say neighbor, I mean someone who lives within a half mile, but who does not abut our land, nor can either of us see each other's houses. StarField Farm is located almost 2000 feet from the main road and tucked in around 54 acres of land.

After I said my brief statement (it's a residential solar installation, it cannot be seen from the road or anyone's home, it would pose no environmental harm), my neighbor was invited to speak.

He was an older man. White. Definitely a long term smoker. His face was deeply lined and it was clear he'd lived a hard life.

He started by complaining that he was tired of seeing solar panels when he couldn't get his electricity from them. It wasn't fair. There were too many of them everywhere. And if he couldn't have them, they shouldn't be installed all over.

Somewhere in his long statement, he mentioned that he was widowed. He sounded lonely. And he was adament that he didn't want to see any solar panels as he was driving around his neighborhood. It was bad enough that one of his close neighbors put in a residential array where he could see it as he drove by. He had wanted to object to that installation, too, but got to the planning meeting where it was discussed too late.

Through all of this, he wouldn't make eye contact with me.

I tried to explain that because I didn't live here full time, we needed to keep the back up electric baseboard heaters at 50 degrees to keep the pipes freezing and in the winter that led to electric bills over $400/month.

He grudgingly admitted that that was a problem and that someone he knew had pipes burst in a cold snap when they didn't keep the heat on. But he was still objecting to the project. He said he'd driven around to our house and knew that he would see the panels from the road.

The house he thought was ours belongs to our nearest neighbors. Our driveway is accessed over 1000 feet down a shared access road and then the house is set back even further. It's actually not possible to see our home from the road and most folks don't even realize there is a home back there.

As he was talking, I realized that his objection had no standing with the planning board. Outside of a glare complaint or an environmental impact claim, there was nothing in the town laws against a homeowner putting up solar panels. I could have blown him off. The board would grant the waivers we needed: this was pretty much a pro-forma meeting.

But I also realized that this man needed to be heard, not argued with.

So I pulled out a site plan that showed where our home was in relation to the neighbor's home he had mistaken for ours. I understood his frustration and I assured him that the only way he'd see our panels was if he visited them and that he was certainly welcome to come by any time. (People who know me know that I am earnest. This was a genuine invitation, not anything sarcastic or mocking.)

He looked at me, finally, and when the planning board president asked him if his objection still stood, he said no.

The waivers were unanimously granted.

I thanked the man for coming to the meeting.


Behind anger is almost always fear. Fear of the other. Fear of losing out. Fear of change. I likely represented all of these and more for this man. I could list a dozen ways in which we are different. But I understood the critical way we were the same:

I have been in that place of vulnerability. I understand trying to hold onto something -- anything you think you can control. Even if it's not true or even helpful.

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Sunday, August 25, 2019

How I Nearly Gaslit Myself

"Clown Trashcans (Baeza)" by stinkenroboter is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0  

It's surprisingly easy to be 'gaslit'. You wouldn't think so - we all think of ourselves as smart and savvy, but the reality is, we are all susceptible to alterations of our memories of events. Sometimes, the people in our lives can use that tendency for evil purposes. Sometimes, we just confuse ourselves.

This is a story of how Lisa freaked herself out and had her questioning her sanity, her memory, and her reality all in one day.


Our trash day is Friday. I try to bring out the barrels on Thursday night because I have a standing event Friday mornings at 7 am which makes it a stretch to get out the trash Friday morning. If I leave it for Friday, it means not getting the barrels to the curb until I'm back around 9 am.

A few weeks ago, was one such busy Thursday. On Friday morning, as I headed out for my 7 am, I reminded myself to deal with the trash when I returned.

When I got home, the trash and recycling barrels were at the curbside.

Huh. I could have sworn they weren't there when I left. But maybe I just didn't notice. I figured my husband did the trash before he headed for work. He's normally more pressed for time in the mornings than I am, so it's a task that generally I do. But okay. I added recycling from the house to the recycle bin and went about my day.

The trash collectors came and went sometime late morning. I had a few errands to run and figured I'd put the barrels away when I returned.

When I got home a few hours later, the barrels were gone.

Hmmm. Sometimes our neighbor pulls them in, especially when he thinks we're out of town. So I went next door to thank him.

Readers, he didn't put them away.

Now, he has a good poker face and a sharp sense of humor, so for a moment I considered that he was pranking me, but after a few more minutes of conversation, I was convinced it wasn't him.

My older son has variable work hours, and we usually ask him to take in the barrels if we're going to be away for the weekend. It was possible that he thought this was one of those weekends. So I texted him to thank him.

He hadn't put the barrels away either.

Now, I was starting to get a little weirded out. Yes, it's just trash cans, but still. Weird.

Friday night, when hubby came home from work, I told him about the mystery of the returning trash cans and thanked him for putting out the barrels in the morning.

He looked at me funny and said he hadn't taken them out. He'd overslept his alarm and didn't even have time for coffee that morning. He said I must have done it but not remembered. Then he asked me if I checked the storage shed for the barrels.

I went to the little shed only to find that there was trash and recycling still in both barrels.

Which meant they had NEVER been taken out at all.

Hubby starts asking me if I feel okay.

I start quietly panicking inside. 

I am SURE I didn't imagine the barrels in front of the house that morning. Hell, I added the recycling that was in the house to the green bin. But I start thinking that maybe, just maybe I'm remembering from last week. You do something over and over and over again every week at the same time and sure - I could have just conflated all the memories into one.

Except that doesn't feel right. 

I kept trying to remember anything specific about taking the trash out that morning and bringing it back later in the day, but it doesn't feel real.  But neither does not taking them out.

Now I have, in essence, two competing memories in my head: one where I didn't move the trash cans, one where I did and the more I try to sort it out, the more I cannot determine which set of memories is real. 

I've been more forgetful lately. And I've been blaming it on 'menopause brain', but could this be something else? Something more serious?

I have a medical background, so my FIRST thought is "Oh, God, I have a brain tumor." Logical, right?

But then I remember I had a head/neck MRI a few months ago for a neck issue and surely, if there had been a tumor, they would have seen it then.

Okay, so I'm just really losing my mind. 

My husband keeps asking me if I'm sure I feel okay.

Well, that just makes it all better . . . NOT.

I remember how my mother would spin from confusion to anger when she was confronted by something she had forgotten at the start of her slide into dementia. The only saving grace is since I was adopted, I don't have her genes. But then I start to wonder how much of dementia is genetic. I've been having word finding problems for the past few years (a *joyful* thing when you're a writer). Maybe it is more serious than menopause brain.

I was at the point of calling my primary care practitioner for a recommendation and referral to a neurologist when a new possibility popped into my brain. I wasn't sure if the new thought was a genuine possibility or if I was grasping at straw in my frantic attempt not to be losing my mind.

You see, there had been a bunch of road and sidewalk work over the prior week or so in the neighborhood. So with a desperate kind of hope, I called my neighbor to ask her if by chance, she had put her trash barrels in front of our house.

Even I didn't put a lot of faith in that being the solution. 


I was truly holding my breath waiting for her answer.

"Why yes," she said, "sorry I didn't tell you. The sidewalk in front of our house was roped off so we couldn't put the trash out."

Relief flooded through my body. I wasn't crazy. I didn't have this unexplained memory gap. There was a perfectly logical explanation for the appearing/disappearing trash barrels. I was literally shaking for several minutes after I got off the phone. 


And that, my friends, is how easy it is to be gaslit, even by your OWN mind.

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