Our Beautiful Difference by Catherine Wilson

My older brother, Owen, was a poet, an actor, and playwright. And, he was gay.

It was especially not ok to be gay in our family while growing up in the 1950s in Pennsylvania. Maybe if there had been gay characters on family sitcoms and gay journalists on network television, as there are now, our parents would have been able to accept Owen and give him the love he deserved. But, they needed society’s approval to love their child and in the 1950s my parent’s didn’t have that approval.

Yet, what if they had loved Owen by courageously not caring what society thought about their own child?

When I was in my twenties I worked at a day care center. We had a little 3 year old boy there who was always the first to be picked up. His father would walk through the door whistling the Irving Berlin song, “Always.” Wherever the little boy was, he’d hear that song and knew it was meant only for him. He’d jump up, the castle of blocks he’d spent so much time building, knocked over and forgotten, as he ran into the man’s outstretched arms. The man would swing the boy up and hug him so tight, you just knew the boy would soar through life, like floating from a trapeze, because the man was his net.

The man would laugh. The boy would laugh. Their laughter sounded like home, or the way I imagined home could sound like.  And I laughed too at their happiness and love.

One day the man said to me of the boy, “He’s very sensitive. I can tell he’s going to be an actor like me. Look at our hands. They’re so alike.” He held up his hand and put the little 3 year old boy’s hand next to his for me to examine. The man’s hands were small, the fingers tapered, the nails well cared for. Hands of a musician, I thought, before he told me he was an actor.

The little boy was small for his age, and frail like the man. The child was the man’s girlfriend’s son. None of his genes had been transferred to this boy he was so proud of, but it made no difference to him. The two sets of hands were nondescript. Nothing you’d remember, really. Except I have remembered. For over forty years I’ve remembered his hands and those of the little boy. Not because they were so similar, as the man wanted me to believe, but because I felt the profound love the man had for the boy, which made me love him. To me the man had hands that did no harm.  To Owen and me our father’s hands were capable—not careful.

That is why the concept a man was capable of respecting a child was unknown to me. The profound respect and deep love of this man for this child was not what I experienced in our family growing up. It was foreign, like traveling to a distant country where Owen and I did not speak the language. Yet, through this man and this child I understood the possibilities of what could be.

I remember looking at the man and at the little boy. All I could think was, why hadn’t Owen been born into this family? To a father who would welcome him and appreciate him for his talents as a poet, a playwright, and actor. A father who would be proud to call him son? Not a father who beat and abused Owen when he was the same age as the little boy standing in front of me. And the beatings and abuse were for what? For not being like whom? For not being like him? For being too much like him?

Our father would have names for this man who was in touch with his feminine side and they wouldn’t have been artistic and talented. Panty waist and queer were the names Owen and I heard in our house.

“Stand up straight! Give me a firm handshake, not that limp noodle! Lower your voice!” Father demanded.

I think of my father’s hands that were so different from the hands of the kind man. My father’s hands were large and hard, rough, dry and red, with deep lines. They were the hands of a man who didn’t mind getting them dirty. No matter how much he scrubbed them there was always remnants of dirt under his nails. With his capable hands he could fix a leaking toilet, wire a chandelier, or mend a fence. And, Owen and I knew, when he hit you with one of those hands, you remembered it.

Despite Owen’s lifelong mantra, “To thine own self be true,” he was as much a stranger to himself as he was to everyone who knew him. Whenever you asked him how he was, he would always say, fine.  I know that all of his adult life Owen suffered in silence, just as he’d suffered in silence as a child, every time our father took off his belt and beat him with it.

My brother committed suicide on March 26, 1999. He hanged himself with two belts in his fifth floor walk-up apartment, freeing himself at last from the guilt and shame that eventually destroyed him. He’d been taught to believe that something was wrong with him. He was taught that he was a disappointment. He was taught artistic and kind were not okay for “real” men.

The people who loved Owen, including his small band of friends, weren’t able to convince him he was worthy and that there was nothing wrong with his being gay. I was not able to convince my brother either. But, I am grateful all these years later that the culture is changing. Which gives me great hope for future generations.

I watch my two year old grandson running around the garden wearing fairy wings like his older sister. Maybe he wants to be his older sister. Maybe he just likes wearing fairy wings. I don’t know. What I do know is that in our family he is loved and accepted and will be supported for whoever he is. My family freely gives him the respect, acceptance, and deep love that I wanted so desperately for my dear brother. A love and acceptance each of us has the power to give one another, no matter how beautifully different we are.

Don’t we need to care about behavior that is not loving?

 

Last week I shared my thoughts about the toxic oil spill off the coast of Southern California that is killing wildlife and wreaking havoc. I discussed how powerful you and I are to help end these environmental disasters for good by curbing our dependency on fossil fuels so we create a clean environment for our children and all life.

And there is something else you and I can do that I believe is just as important to the health and well-being of all children. We can stop ignoring the small toxic leaks of unloving behavior in our relationships.

Little by little the hurtful drops of injury drip. Judgment, sarcasm, anger, frustration, projecting unresolved childhood wounding onto one another, dishonesty with ourselves about ourselves, and more. The hurt we feel causes us to want to escape into the fantasy that it is only one lie or one small drop of disrespect, deceit, avoidance, or cruelty. But the tiny drips of hurt accumulate. And unless these are found and stopped, each unkind word, each episode of ego-boxing and wounding one another in the name of love, adds up, eventually burying our relationships beneath accumulated heartbreak and dysfunction. This is damaging to us and our children. It is not what love does.

When we use excuses that we are rushed, distracted, angry, justified, or did not really mean it, or when we feel powerless to speak our truth, we’re refusing to face the little drops of pain we cause one another. Isn’t that the opposite of how love behaves?

Don’t we need to care that love is not supposed to be judgmental, bullying, cruel, or afraid to address the lasting wounds we cause one another?

Don’t we need to care what behaviors, attitudes, and words in our life and relationships are not loving?

Don’t we need to take our power and act? Be the positive change we want to see?

You may have noticed by now that regardless of whether it is the environment or in our relationships, waiting for a savior is not working. We must step up and be our own saviors, because as the famous quote attributed to Albert Einstein goes, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Which means we need to step off the wheel of feeling powerless. We do so by getting busy doing things differently to bring about different results in all of our relationships.

We intentionally face the fear of rocking a boat that is already leaking. We appreciate the fact that ignoring the toxic leaks in our relationships will not make them go away. We admit they will not clean themselves. We acknowledge that the dire situations we are creating in our families and in the world are not the legacy our children deserve.

We are powerful to change our hurtful family dynamics. We are adults who can bravely face the discomfort of feeling powerless. We take action and initiate conversation about bullying. We turn off mistreatment when we see it on television, in video games, and in social media. We stop listening to opinionated news commentary and the judgment that too often becomes the basis for our religious attitudes. We pay attention to how negative social media, our emotional absence, or trying to fit children into a specific box of our own making is robbing them of their childhood joy, undermining their self-esteem, and weakening their ability to connect with themselves, each other, and the natural world.  We look at our expectations, distractions, addictions to technology, and how we feel about ourselves and other people with the goal of transforming all we find to be toxic in our relationships.

No matter how insurmountable our challenges seem to be, we are powerful to overcome them when we keep foremost within our heart the understanding that love thinks before it speaks and listens as it wants to be heard. Love is emotionally present. Love overrules a wounded ego’s pride and the desire to fight fire with fire. Love stops us from seeking escape in the comfortable fantasies we create to avoid the hard to face.

It is a struggle for a butterfly to emerge from its cocoon. But once freed, it adds great beauty to the world.

We are in individual and collective cocoons of sorts, struggling to free ourselves from several great challenges. Let’s make this positive effort to create kinder and more connected relationships with ourselves, our families, and our neighbors.  Let’s talk about the challenging subjects of hurt and disrespect with the knowledge that we can transform these for the better. Let’s take care of our earth and our homes by recommitting to all our relationships with thoughtfulness, honesty, responsibility, emotional presence, and empathy.

We can emerge triumphant from the cocoon of feeling powerless. We can add great beauty to our relationships and the world. We simply accept that “I love you,” comes with the huge responsibility to actually love.

 

We Are Powerful

As I write this, there is an oil spill off the coast of Southern California. Tens of thousands of gallons of toxic sludge are killing wildlife and wreaking havoc on the environment. Yet oil spills and leaky pipes are nothing new, as dependency on fossil fuel goes hand in hand with environmental disaster. This horrible, and predictable, collateral damage is the very ugly side of the relationship we have with our automobiles, planes, and other fossil fuel—powered machinery and the convenience and mobility they bring to daily life.

When these disasters happen, many of us get upset and may even want to do something helpful. Yet I have often wondered why, when the current catastrophe is over, the majority of us simply go back to ignoring, or forgetting, or not caring about the ever-present onshore and offshore danger of a dependency on fossil fuel. Our temporary attention and alarm are quickly replaced with business as usual. It seems all it takes to close our eyes to the endless warning signs about the direction we are headed is a leak fixed, some wildlife cleaned up and released, and the news moving on to the next disaster or political standoff.

Why do we just move on instead of doing something proactive to end these disasters for good?

I have come to the conclusion that we do not know what to do. At times like these, we feel powerless. What can I, as one person, do? Feeling powerless and all alone to effect real change, we do not do what we can. We fall back on the comfort of inaction, preferring to believe life is really fine no matter what is happening around us. That disasters like these, unless they are in our backyard, do not really impact us, or they are not really that bad, or someone else will do something. We have great sympathy for others experiencing disasters far from us, but we do not dig deep enough to empathetically sit beside one another in the truth that if a crisis impacts other people and forms of life, it impacts us, too.

I believe the motivation to move on so quickly stems from the avoidance we developed as children when facing hurt, abuse, or difficult challenges. Because we were powerless to stop what was happening, we did not know what to do. The only thing we could do was escape, most often emotionally. Many of us created a fantasy world with the perfect family where everything was fine. A world filled with the magic of unicorns and the warmth of rainbows. But nothing in the fantasy world helped change the real world in which we lived.

Now that we are adults, I believe it is healthy for us to admit we have never met a unicorn or found a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Which means it is time for us to face reality. It is time to accept that we are not without power over our choice to consume fossil fuel. Maybe we take positive action, like installing solar panels on our home, purchasing an electric automobile, taking public transportation, walking, or selling our oil company stock and investing in renewable energy. With a little effort and care, we will discover numerous small things that, when done by many people, will create a big difference in dealing with the fossil fuel challenge impacting us all.

I will do as much as I can.  And I will leave what you can do to you.

But please remember that together we are not powerless. We are powerful! The small changes you and I make to our dependency on fossil fuel will help move us to a clean, sustainable planet for our children and theirs. Together we can be part of the solution, rather than continue to fuel (pun intended) the destruction of our outer environment. We do not have to leave this issue to our children.

Compassionate Communication: Speaking and Listening with an Open Heart during Difficult Times

I’ve spent most of my adult life feeling as though I’m fairly enlightened. Considerate, peaceful, respectful of the rights and feelings of others – “woke,” I guess you could say. Until recently, if you asked anyone about me, my friends, family, even strangers in the supermarket, they’d probably tell you, “She’s calm, kind, – has something encouraging to say…a ‘peaceful’ person.” And I’d smile beatifically, so sure of my place in a benevolent Universe, in my ability to stay centered even when people and circumstances around me were difficult. I was patient with myself, with others, with challenging life circumstances. I handed out copies of Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements to family and friends, believed in “living in the now,” took nothing personally, and woke up most mornings feeling grateful and optimistic.

Lately though, I’ve struggled to maintain the “balance” I’ve counted on to navigate through life. I could probably give you an eloquent and “justifiable” list of “reasons” for this regrettable state of being, for this vaguely alarming sense that, despite my history as a peaceful, happy person, I have become decidedly off-balance.

Sure, this has been a tough year; no one will argue with me there. In a world in which at least a few core elements used to seem relatively certain – being close to family, counting on old friends for love and support, taking comfort in shared memories and experiences, hugging, joking, laughing, feeling like no matter what happened “out there,” we could still count on at least a few familiar rituals, experiences, and relationships to keep us looking forward to what tomorrow, next week, or next year might bring.

But all of a sudden, people I thought I knew very well were repeating fake news, ranting about how seemingly reliable media sources and public figures were “after them,” how a serious public health threat “wasn’t that bad” and how being asked to wear a face covering was “depriving them of their rights.” And if I didn’t agree with them, they declared, then I must be either “confused,” “misinformed” or just plain wrong.

“What’s wrong with them?” I asked myself disgustedly. “How can they say those things! Don’t they understand how negative/disrespectful/hurtful they sound?” I found myself gravitating towards others who were similarly stuck in loops of righteous negativity. As long as we agreed with each other about how wrong “they” were, then surely we were “right”? I was allowing the words of others to “make me” feel anxious, sad – even angry. I wasn’t listening, I was reacting. I wasn’t communicating, I was flinging words into the Universe with no regard to what effect those words were having – exactly what I was accusing other people of doing!

Then one day, I was on my treadmill, getting in my steps to Lady Gaga and Earth, Wind and Fire, when a sudden clarity came over me – not a lightning-bolt kind of clarity, but a sort of calming internal effusion of knowing that almost made me stumble. I slowed down the treadmill and settled into an amble to give my brain a chance to quiet the heck down and listen to my heart

I remembered a conversation I’d had recently with one of my close friends. She still refused to take the current public health crisis seriously, going on and on about how she just couldn’t breathe with a mask on, and how her rights were being violated by insisting that she either wear one or stay at home. Now, instead of reverting to the judgmental mindset I’d slipped into the last time I’d listened to her, I let myself recall the stark fear in her voice as she talked about the prospect of becoming ill, about how sad she was that she hadn’t seen her four grandchildren in more than a year, about her fear that one of her adult children, who’d lost his job and tended towards depression, would sink into despair.

Instead of listening with an open heart, listening to all of her words and the feelings behind them, I’d focused on my friend’s rant about face coverings and personal rights and decided that she was being unreasonable and illogical. By doing this, I was also locking myself into a negative space, unable to empathize with her or offer her comfort. I was also pushing my own sadness, fear and anxiety into a dark corner – never a good practice for someone who claimed to exude inner peace, balance and “wokeness”!

I finished my workout, eased into my recliner, and took a good long look at my recent attitude and how it was affecting my relationships with myself and others. Yes, these were indeed difficult times, but hadn’t I long ago learned that the words I allowed myself to use mattered? I’d let myself drift away from one of my core affirmations: “Today, let me practice compassionate communication”.

Sure, maybe the current state of the world could best be described as “super-mega-freefall-flux,”but that was no reason for me to abandon my commitment to listening with an open heart, and to using words to nurture and support myself and others, not create anxiety and perpetuate negativity.

The way I see it, there are two parallel paths of compassionate communication: the way I speak to and listen to others, and the way I choose to react to the way others speak to me. The first path has to do with being mindful, not only of the actual words I’m using, but also of their intent and impact. During stressful times, the mindfulness with which I usually choose my words might not activate in time to keep me from saying something unkind or thoughtless. It’s up to me to “think before I speak” and to choose my words carefully and kindly. It’s also up to me to listen compassionately, to remember that pain and fear may also be causing others to say things they might not mean. Of course, if I feel that someone is being deliberately hurtful or deceitful, then I can choose to end a conversation, as an act of compassion to myself.

The second path involves the way I react to what I am told. I’ve come to understand that “what I’m told” includes what I hear in the media, and to address this, I’ve had to curtail my consumption of words thrown at me by public figures who wield them to create anxiety, fear, and mistrust. This sort of communication is the polar opposite of compassionate because the speakers don’t care about the negative affect their words might have on others. And with difficult personal conversations, I have several choices: one, I can agree not to take what is being said personally and simply let it pass; or two, I can choose to express how someone’s words have hurt or upset me – as long as I’m not expecting a particular outcome from doing so.

The choices I make about the words I use affect not only my own well-being, but that of others. Compassionate communication, speaking and listening with an open heart, is a deliberate choice I can make to encourage myself and others to live more balanced, peaceful lives, even during difficult times. 

By Vicky Elabd

(Instagram: @vickyelabd)

 

 

Who are we? What is our reason for Being?

 

Since the beginning of recorded time, humans have documented the search for the answer to who we are. How did the ancients comprehend themselves among the points of light in the night sky? Did they feel small surrounded by the majesty of the natural world?

The Greek sage Aristotle wanted to understand our reality and believed all people, by nature, desire to know. Over the centuries, countless scientists and philosophers continued the quest to discover our place in the universe and the meaning of life. Since the mid-twentieth century, physicists have worked on a Theory of Everything, a single formula to answer all of our big questions.

You and I are no different from the great pursuers of significant answers in our desire to truly be aware of ourselves. Each of us is hard-wired to examine and navigate the ever-growing realm of inner and outer discovery.  With each new achievement, we seem more certain of who we are.

We are physical beings capable of fantastic feats of strength and endurance. We are intellectual beings who create scientific, medical, and technological marvels. We are emotional beings with an extraordinary capacity for sensitivity.  We experience ourselves and our surroundings through the senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste.

In addition to the physical, emotional, and intellectual capacities and the senses by which we perceive stimuli originating from outside or inside our body, a higher wisdom exists within us. I have known it from my first memory.

I was eighteen months old.  I was watching my newborn sister being carried by two nuns down a long sidewalk.  The tips of their hats flopped up and down in rhythm to their synchronized footsteps.  I was aware of each step, each sway of their robes as they moved closer and closer.  My senses were heightened. The sky was a magnificent deep blue.  Seagulls squawked overhead.  The air smelled like the sea. A cool breeze raised goose-bumps on my arm.

I watched expectantly from the back seat of our car as the nuns gently placed a bundle in my mother’s lap.  I peeked over the seat and saw a tiny pink face, eyes squeezed tight against the bright sunlight.

Unable to have children of their own, our parents adopted my sister and me.  Many important events in life have left crystalclear memories within my heart, but none compares to the special day when my sister joined our family.  Awakened to the power of living in the present moment, I received a sister, and with an open heart I became conscious of all we are.

It took years for me to describe what actually happened on that day.  As a child, being present and openhearted is natural. And, as children, we lack the ability to understand how special it is to remain open and present in the now moment as we grow up.

I now realize that day was significant because I was aware of observing myself observing the world, its inhabitants, and my surroundings with a wide-eyed wonder.  Now, many years later, I am able to express the experience as simultaneously seeing myself clearly and feeling myself fully as both participant in and witness to life.  I became aware of a peaceful, present, and patient existence within my being. Connected to this part of my Self, I remembered we are spiritual beings.

As a result, I am aware how powerful each of us is in the moment at hand. In the present NOW we are capable of awakening to ourselves and acting as the conscious beings we are.

Knowing ourselves as soul requires a deep faith in what we cannot see.  We may never prove our soul’s existence with scientific, intellectual, or theological theories.  Attempting to prove soul’s existence with one’s intellect is like trying to see black holes in space.

“Is seeing black holes important?” asks Neil DeGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist with the American Museum of Natural History.  “No.  What’s important is that we can see a black hole’s paw print.  We see them by observing the impressions they leave.”

Our spirit’s “paw print” is also clearly visible through the impressions we leave. When we give as we want to receive, listen as we want to be heard, and speak as we want to be spoken to, the wisest, most powerful part within us—spirit—permeates each cell, each breath, and each beat of our heart. Soul’s awareness surrounds us and fills us with love, which fuels our desire to live an ordinary life in the most extraordinary way:  remembering we are Divine beings on great human adventures.