Becoming Ocean

Becoming Ocean

I am not a big consumer of news. I have a tough time taking in the troubles and complexities of the world and then plowing ahead with the day to day stuff of my life; if I had to sum it up, when I allow myself to absorb not just the facts of the news but what those facts translate to in terms of impact on actual people I feel powerless.

Last week I read and listened to reports about how disappointed and afraid people are about the presumed presidential nominees, the swell of outrage surrounding the Stanford rape case, and the outpouring of grief for the victims of the mass shooting in Orlando. There is so much to be concerned about and this generates a lot of feelings in us-- some that we’re comfortable with like connectedness, love, pride, and others that are decidedly less welcome like anger and despair. One of the most beautiful and awful things about our cultural response to these intense events is our will to push through them in order to arrive swiftly at some other, elusive, resolved side of things. Rightfully so, we are in hot pursuit of more stable ground.

Yesterday, seeking comfort, I reread a beautiful passage by the poet David Whyte in his incredible book, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, where he unpacks and examines the word anger with breathtaking precision:

“Stripped of physical imprisonment and violent reaction, anger is the purest form of care, the internal living flame of anger will always illuminate what we belong to, what we wish to protect and what we are willing to hazard ourselves for.”

This passage reminded me of the small but mighty power inherent in an individual life lived with integrity, accountability, and yes- anger. Maybe the most impactful and useful thing we can do is to grow our own capacity for empathy and compassion (which, for the record, are different things) for the murkiness of the human experience. To learn to listen for what someone belongs to when they are angry, stuck, or defensive.

Last summer I listened to a remarkable story (go here if you want to hear it yourself) about a woman who went through a unique grieving process that at the outset sounds almost masochistic but in truth was her imaginative path to solace and ultimately empowerment during a time in her life that made her feel totally powerless- the time following the death of her infant son. She summarized her experience in this way that resonated with me so much that I shared it with anyone who would listen to me for a few months after hearing it.

She said that for a long time after her son's death she felt like she was a boat on an ocean getting slapped about by rough and choppy waves and that at some point during the process she went through, she realized that she was not the boat; she was actually the ocean, and that the decisions she makes in her life have an impact in other people’s lives.

The wrinkled flag above was made by my friend and artist Marina Zurkow. She remembered my affection for the ocean analogy and gave this to me at the end of a residency she did this spring that brought experts from various disciplines together in hopes of coming up with new ideas to respond to the rising waters of climate change-- a topic rife with fear and despair.

Perhaps experiencing ourselves as the ocean is what makes us and the smallest of gestures have effect, that a million small actions strung together are what make a meaningful life. With that in mind, we have a couple events coming up that will not change the world per se; seemingly insignificant, they are part of the ocean all the same.