There is a chickadee outside the window. It has lighted on a slender branch of the nearly leafless bush and is turning its black-capped head this way and that while its little body dances briskly, feathers puffed against the chill. The day is harsh. A bitter wind tosses the tree tops. A dusting of snow, remnant of a fierce winter storm to our north, lies in patches over the curled brown leaves on the ground. Not lovely, nor inviting, still the rugged scene is worthy of contemplation: the nuthatch running up the tree trunk, the sudden red flash of the pileated woodpecker, the woodshed tarp rippling in the wind.
Moments like these, in which it is possible to glimpse what Denise Levertov called “the quiet mystery”, are respites hard to come by in recent times. At the Rolling Ridge Study Retreat Board Meeting, held in a downtown church in D.C., we went around the room, each one telling their tale of distress, and some hope, and distress again, while a passerby strode down the street outside wearing a t-shirt that read RESIST.
When it was my turn to share, I told how our community had come together over the weekend to talk about our bi-weekly “heart conversations”, when we try to practice vulnerability, humility, and deep listening. These conversations need careful tending and intentionality. They are risky, sometimes rough, and essential. They are also, sometimes, magnets for amazing grace.
This morning I learned that our U.S. Senator representing West Virginia is holding a “mobile office” in nearby Ranson. This is a chance to meet and hear from a staffer and in turn to share constituent concerns.
Like others, I presume, I have in the last couple months re-discovered my activist past. I have made phone calls, sent postcards, attended a meeting, marched. I am deeply disturbed about the way this country is being governed.
But our nation will not be rescued from the peril it is in right now until we can learn again to practice mature democracy (a skill that somehow we lost, and lost sight of). It requires the discipline of self-knowledge, while at the same time maintaining an open mind to receive other views, experiences, and perspectives. A dynamic, healthy democracy thrives on compromise, on the faith that in the end, after all is said and argued and done, everyone will get some of what they want, and all, or most, of what they need.
Sadly, and dangerously, our leaders are not modeling this. But we can.
I have to believe that most people voted the way they did because they wanted things to be better in their lives and the lives of their children--a robust economic future, for one thing; and relief from the drumming undercurrent of anxiety and fear wrought by the violence and mayhem that has traumatized us as a nation and, indeed, the world. Now we've got an opportunity, because we are all enduring the consequences of this election together. I'm curious about what people are feeling, thinking, observing in this moment. I am convinced that's where we need to begin in our common project to re-weave the fabric of our democracy.
Blessedly, as Clarissa Pinkola Estes reminded us, “for years, we have been learning, practicing, been in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plain of engagement… to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.”
We can do this. We know how to be still, to be awake, to be present to the mystery, to let it nourish us for the long haul. For years we have been creating containers where people can disagree without rancor or fear of harm, and safe spaces where vulnerability is cherished.
As Mary Oliver said, “It doesn’t have to be the blue iris”: the perfect spot, the precisely right moment. It can be the awkward, stuttering invitation, the raggle-taggle meeting of only a few.
It can be the next “mobile office”.