December 29, 2019

You work, and you work, and you work, and then you get a glimmer of understanding.

© Illustration by Ana Galvan for The New Yorker

The Myth and Magic of Generating New Ideas
By Dan Rockmore

"The origin stories of big ideas, whether in math or any other field, generally highlight the eureka moments. You can’t really blame the storytellers. It’s not so exciting to read “and then she studied some more.” But this arduous, mundane work is a key part of the process; without it, the story is just a myth. There’s no way to skip the worrying phase. You work, and you work, and you work, and then you get a glimmer of understanding."

December 24, 2019

There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
By Bryan Stevenson

Thankful for Bryan Stevenson's social justice work and for his documenting so much of his experience in this moving memoir.

I had recently finished Just Mercy when news was spreading of the young woman fatally stabbed in Morningside Park by three teenagers—at least one as young as 13—and felt devastated for them all. The victim and the offenders. This passage illuminates why.

"It took a while for me to sort it out, but I realized something sitting there while Jimmy Dill was being killed at Holman prison. After working for more than twenty-five years, I understood that I don't do what I do because it's required or necessary or important. I don't do it because I have no choice.

I do what I do because I'm broken, too.

My years of struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression, and injustice had finally revealed something to me about myself. Being close to suffering, death, executions, and cruel punishments didn't just illuminate the brokenness of others; in a moment of anguish and heartbreak, it also exposed my own brokenness. You can't effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression or injustice and not be broken by it.
We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent. I desperately wanted mercy for Jimmy Dill and would have done anything to create justice for him, but I couldn't pretend that his struggle was disconnected from my own. The ways in which I have been hurt—and have hurt others—are different from the ways Jimmy Dill suffered and caused suffering. But our shared brokenness connected us.
Paul Farmer, the renowned physician who has spent his life trying to cure the world's sickest and poorest people, once quoted me something that the writer Thomas Merton said: "We are bodies of broken bones." I guess I'd always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we're fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we're shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.
We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and as a result, deny our own humanity.

I thought of the guards strapping Jimmy Dill to the gurney that very hour. I thought of the people who would cheer his death and see it as some kind of victory. I realized they were broken people, too, even if they would never admit it. So many of us have become afraid and angry. We've become so fearful and vengeful that we've thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and weak—not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tough, less broken. I thought of the victims of violent crime and the survivors of murdered loved ones, and how we've pressured them to recycle their pain and anguish and give it back to the offenders we prosecute. I thought of the many ways we've legalized vengeful and cruel punishment, how we've allowed our victimization to justify the victimization of others. We've submitted to harsh instinct to crush those among us whose brokenness is most visible.
But simply punishing the broken —walking away from them or hiding them from sight—only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity."
(pp. 288-90)

December 07, 2019

Look to the real that you yourself live. The kinds of tales found there can never come from books.

Women Who Run With the Wolves
By Clarissa Pinkola Estés

This book is a gift. Have I said that already? It's not a coincidence this found its way to me, this year of all years.

2020: the year I tell my stories.

Last words.

"I tell people to do their own mining of stories from their own lives, and insist upon it with those I teach, especially the stories from their own heritages, for if at the least, one turns always to the tales directly from the translators of Grimms, for instance, then the tales of their personal heritage—as soon as their old ones die of—shall be lost to them forever. I am a strong supporter of those who bring back the stories of their heritages, preserving them, saving them from death by neglect. Of course, it is the old people who are the bones of the entire healing and spiritual structures everywhere on the face of the earth.
Look to your people, your life. It is not by accident that this advice is the same among great healers and great writers as well. Look to the real that you yourself live. The kinds of tales found there can never come from books. They come from eyewitness accounts.
The authentic mining of stories from one's own life and the lives of one's own people, and the modern world as it relates to one's own life as well, means that there will be discomfort and trials. You know you are on the right path if you have experienced these: the scraped knuckles, the sleeping on cold ground—not once, but over and over again—the groping in the dark, the walking in circles in the night, the bone-chilling revelations, and the hair-raising adventures on the way—these are worth everything. There must be a little, and in many cases, a good deal of blood spilled on every story, on every aspect of your own life, if it is to carry the numen, if a person is to carry a true medicine.
I hope you will go out and let stories, that is life, happen to you, and that you will work with these stories from your life—your life—not someone else's life—water them with your blood and tears and your laughter till they bloom, till you yourself burst into bloom. That is the work. That is the only work."
(p. 511)

December 06, 2019

Whatever the secret is, we understand that it is now part of our work for life.

Women Who Run With the Wolves
By Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Battle Scars: Membership in the Scar Clan

"In small and confidential groups of women, I bring about this exchange by asking the women to gather together and to bring photographs of their mothers, aunts, sisters, mates, grandmothers, and other women who are significant to them. We line up all the pictures. Some are cracked, some peeling, some damaged by water or coffee cup rings; some have been torn in two and taped back together; some are wrapped in glassine tissue. Many have beautiful archaic writing on the back saying "Oh, you kid!" or "Love forever" or "This is me with Joe at Atlantic City" or "Here I am with my groovy roommate" or "These are the girls from the factory."
I suggest each woman begin by saying "These are the women of my bloodline" or "These are the women from whom I inherited." Women look at these pictures of their female family and friends, and with a deep compassion, begin to tell the stories and secrets of each as they know them: the big joy, the big hurt, the big travail, the big triumph in each woman's life. Throughout the time we spend together, there are many moments when we can go no further, for many, many tears lift many, many boats out of dry dock and off we all sail away together for a while."
(p. 414)

"Whatever the secret is, we understand that it is now part of our work for life. Redemption heals a once-open wound. But there will be a scar nevertheless. With changes of weather the scar can and will ache again. That is the nature of a true grief."
(p. 415)

La Selva Subterranea: Initiation in the Underground Forest

"There are times in a woman's life when she cries and cries and cries, and even though she has the succor and support of her loved ones, still and yet she cries. Something in this crying keeps the predator away, keeps away unhealthy desire or gain that will ruin her. Tears are part of the mending of rips in the psyche where energy has leaked and leaked away. The matter is serious, but the worst does not occur—our light is not stolen—for tears make us conscious. There is no chance to go back to sleep when one is weeping. Whatever sleep comes then is only rest for the physical body.
Sometimes a woman says, "I am sick of crying, I am tired of it, I want it to stop." But it is her soul that is making tears, and they are her protection. So she must keep on till the time of need is over. Some women marvel at all the water their bodies can produce when they weep. This will not last forever, only till the soul is done with its wise expression."
(p. 437)

December 01, 2019

Forgiveness is an act of creation.

Women Who Run With the Wolves
By Clarissa Pinkola Estés

This chapter changed my rating for Women Who Run from four stars to five.

No wisdom has been more profound this year than my revelation that I can break the cycle. That my best, happiest, most fulfilled and loving life begins on the other side of the rage—and I am powerful enough to see it, feel it, and release it for myself and on behalf of everyone else who came before me.

Marking Territory: The Boundaries of Rage and Forgiveness

"Even raw and messy emotions can be understood as a form of light, crackling and bursting with energy. We can use the light of rage in a positive way, in order to see into places we cannot usually see. A negative use of rage concentrates destructively in one tiny spot until, like acid creating an ulcer, it burns a black hole right through all the delicate layers of the psyche.
But there is another way. All emotion, even rage, carries knowledge, insight, what some call enlightenment. Our rage can, for a time, become teacher...a thing not to be rid of so fast, but rather something to climb the mountain for, something to personify via various images in order to learn from, deal with internally, then shape into something useful in the world as a result, or else let it go back down to dust. In a cohesive life, rage is not a stand-alone item. It is a substance waiting for our transformative efforts. The cycle of rage is like any other cycle; it rises, falls, dies, and is released as new energy. Attention to the matter of rage begins the process of transformation."
(pp. 381-2)

"We want to use anger as a creative force. We want to use it to change, develop, and protect. So, whether a woman is dealing with the aggravation of the moment with an offspring, or some sort of a searing lengthy burn, the perspective of the healer is the same: When there is calm, there can be learning, there can be creative solutions, but where there is firestorm, inside or out, it burns hot and leaves nothing but ash. We want to be able to look back on our actions with honor. We want something useful to show for feeling angry."
(p. 384)

"On the mountain we find additional clues about how to transform the hurt, negativism, and grudge-holding aspects of rage, all usually felt and often warranted initially. One is the phrase "Arigato zaisho," which the woman sings to thank the trees and the mountains for allowing her to pass. Figuratively translated, the phrase means "Thank you, Illusion." In Japanese, zaisho, means a clear way of looking at matters that interfere with deeper understandings of ourselves and the world."
(p. 385)

"So, we have seen that we wish to make rage into a fire that cooks things rather than into a fire of conflagration. We have seen that the work on rage cannot be completed without the ritual of forgiveness. We have spoken about women's rage often deriving from the situation in her family of origin, from the surrounding culture, and sometimes from adult trauma. But regardless of the source of the rage, something has to happen to recognize it, bless it, contain it, and release it...
In that respect a woman who has lived a torturous life and delved deeply into it definitely has inestimable depth. Though she came to it through pain, if she has done the hard work of clinging to consciousness, she will have a deep and thriving soul-life and a fierce belief in herself regardless of occasional ego-waverings...
A body who has lived a long time accumulates debris. It cannot be avoided. But if a woman will return to the instinctual nature instead of sinking into bitterness, she will be revivified, reborn."
(pp. 394-5)

"To make descansos means taking a look at your life and marking where the small deaths, las muertes chiquitas, and the big deaths, las muertes grandotas, have taken place...
We mark where there were roads not taken, paths that were cut off, ambushes, betrayals, and deaths. I put a little cross along the time-line at the places that should have been mourned, or still need to be mourned. And then I write in the background "forgotten" for those things that the woman senses but which have not yet surfaced. I also write "forgiven" over those things the woman has for the most part released...
Be gentle with yourself and make the descansos, the resting places for the aspects of yourself that were on their way to somewhere, but never arrived. Descansos mark the death sites, the dark times, but they are also love notes to your suffering. They are transformative. There is a lot to be said for pinning things to the earth so they don't follow us around. There is a lot to be said for laying them to rest."
(pp. 396-7)

"A woman who can work up a good 95 percent of forgiveness of someone or something tragic and damaging almost qualifies for beatification, if not sainthood. If she is 75 percent forgiving and 25 percent "I don't know if I ever can forgive fully, and I don't even know if I want to," that is more the norm. But 60 percent forgiveness accompanied by 40 percent "I don't know, and I'm not sure, and I'm still working on it," is definitely fine. A level of 50 percent or less forgiveness qualifies for work-in-progress status. Less than 10 percent? You've either just begun or you're not really trying yet."
(p. 400)

"To truly heal, however, we must say our truth, and not only our regret and pain but also what harm was caused, what anger, what disgust, and also what desire for self-punishment or vengeance was evoked in us. The old healer of the psyche understands human nature with all its foibles and gives pardon based on the telling of the naked truth. She not only gives second chances, she most often gives many chances."
(p. 400)

"Forgiveness is the culmination of all foregoing, forebearing, and forgetting. It does not mean giving up one's protection, but one's coldness."
(p. 403)

"Forgiveness is an act of creation. You can choose from many time-honored ways to do it. You can forgive for now, forgive till then, forgive till the next time, forgive but give no more chances—it's a whole new game if there's another incident. You can give one more chance, give several more chances, give many chances, give chances only if. You can forgive part, all, or half of an offense. You can devise a blanket forgiveness. You decide.
How does one know if she has forgiven? You tend to feel sorrow over the circumstance instead of rage, you tend to feel sorry for the person rather than angry with him. You tend to have nothing left to remember to say about it at all. You understand the suffering that drove the offense to begin with. You prefer to remain outside the milieu. You are not waiting for anything. You are not wanting anything. There is no lariat snare around your ankle stretching from way back there to here. You are free to go. It may not have turned out to be happily ever after, but most certainly there is now a fresh Once upon a time waiting for you from this day forward."
(p. 403)