I had taken an early morning flight from Sydney to Melbourne and while I don’t really like orange juice I was bored. So I peeled back the silver foil and drank from the plastic cup on my tray. Later that day a radio announcer caught my attention with a public health announcement that “all travelers on flight #xxx from Sydney to Melbourne who drank any of the orange juice offered on the airplane should call a doctor immediately.” That was three decades ago. But this COVID-19 pandemic reminds me of the feelings I felt that day. At first I was in denial. I don’t trust panic, and I don’t trust people who tell me to panic. (Now I can see it was prudence not panic.) I did not call a doctor and adopted a wait and see attitude. Then, when I couldn’t concentrate on my work I got angry. Poor me, I was minding my own business but NO…people who made mistakes (or worse) had impacted my life and now I faced the burden of going to see a doctor. It was the next stage, bargaining, when I finally did call a doctor. The second the doctor insisted on coming straight to my apartment to give me a shot, I moved on to depression. All this time I was treating this danger as if it were a made up tragedy. But dammit, it was real. To this date I don’t know what was in that orange juice. I do know that even with the doctor’s injection I spent two days in a special hell of barfing and diarrhea. The emotions I felt in that one day are very similar to my journey of acceptance regarding COVID-19. I share this story, because I think my experience may have led me to acceptance just a bit faster. Every minute, every hour, we spend in denial, anger, bargaining, or depression puts people we love at risk. If you are still stuck in one of these stages…I highly recommend acceptance. Stay home. Stop bargaining to give yourself permission to attend one more gathering. It took me six hours to call a doctor. If I’d reached acceptance earlier, I might have saved myself some pain. I think the same goes for COVID-19.
New Hampshire is cold in March. I was happy to be heading home to North Carolina. The shuttle driver was napping behind the wheel. The sunshine warmed him through windshield. When I opened the passenger door he stirred,
“Thanks for waking me up!” He pointed. “Open that sliding door – that’s it, behind you – and put your bag anywhere you can find.” The door was heavy. I used both hands to slide it back. I hefted my bag high enough to fit on the seat above. Placed my backpack in front of it on the floor of the van and slid the door shut.
“Nah, you didn’t get it. Open it up and try again. You got to really slam it shut.”
I opened the heavy door, pulled it three feet back, then a little more. I took a running start and slammed the door into the lock mechanism.
“There you go, now get in here where it is warm. So how did you like New Hampshire? Did you get to spread your wings?”
“I got to go downtown last…”
“You need to spread your wings. When you come back….what do you like: the mountains or the ocean? Of course the beach is the same anywhere. Did you know we have a mountain 6000 feet tall? We do. I used to be a truck driver and driving out … there was this old man – a rock formation, his nose, you could see his ears. Forty three years I’d look out the window and say “hello old man” then when I was driving back, “Hello old man. Until he fell.”
My new friend points his finger high up and then whistles it down as he imagines the ancient rock formation from his memory crashing down to the bottom of the canyon. He seemed to stare at the rubble for a split second, then he mimics looking out the window again. “Forty three years I been saying hello to the old man. He’s not there anymore.”
“You got to spread your wings. Next time you are here you need to take a taxi, they won’t charge you that much. Go see something. You can drive out toward Concord, just fields and farms. Serene. There’s God in that quiet. Cows don’t talk. Thank goodness. I guess. I’m a Catholic. I love my family. I’m one of seven. My mother was one of eighteen. They are all gone now. Now it’s just us. And we’ll be gone soon.
“So I’m putting away the material things and getting ready for the spiritual. I’m eighty. People say I don’t look a day over 65. (I thought he looked eighty.) I never drank. I don’t drink. Never smoked. I have diabetes but the doctor says I’m doing fine.
“You got to spread your wings. I loved all of my jobs. This one? This van is a toy I get to drive around all over everywhere every day. I get to meet people. I believe in dialogue. I flew down to Florida. I don’t like it there. They don’t understand hospitality. I don’t have a phone. I’m old school. I got on the plane and said, “Hello!” and the guy next to me he’s got his thumbs tapping and he doesn’t even look up. I say, “You can’t even say hello?” He doesn’t say a thing. I sat next to him the whole way and we don’t say nothing. That’s a shame. People don’t talk.
“I think this virus… it’s going to remind us that we need to value each other. We need to treat each other better. I think we are going to come together. We are like beads on a rosary, all linked together.”
“I was born on a farm up in Vermont. We had the farm table that sits fifteen. I was three and my mother says to us all after dinner, get on your knees and let’s say the rosary. I’m three. I tell her ‘I don’t know the rosary.’ She says ‘You will when I get through with you.’ I learn it in English. Then I learn it in French.
“Down at the bottom of that mountain is a lake they call Mirror Lake, because it is. You can look down into it and see the mountain. You got to spread your wings. It is silence that brings you back to peace. You can feel it. You know what I mean.”
He never let me say a word. And it was my own silence that let this old man’s imagery and poetry bring me some peace. Airplanes, hotels and conference halls cramp me up, particularly now that we have to be so careful. But this old man took me to the beach, drove me past the cornfields and showed me the mountain reflected in Mirror Lake. I got to spread my wings just listening.
Yes, I had to lug my own bags but that’s okay. I imagine him now back at the hotel finishing his nap in the sunshine his wings fluffed and relaxed.
I’d love to hear what you think about this podcast. I share a story of an early experience of sexual harassment and the ways I’ve rewritten and replaced shame stories that left me frozen so I learned how to stay present and protected when it happened again. Today I genuinely feel like I can call out bad behavior without getting triggered so badly I fold like a cheap tent (or flip out). My friend Dr. Perry Mandanis is a psychiatrist, consultant, musician, artist, and brilliant therapist who shares true stories on his podcast that speak to the universal aspects of living a resilient life. You are going to love him as much as I do. He has SO many great stories to tell.
This is from the woman who wrote “Diet for a Small Planet” back in 1971. That book started a conversation that is now a vital movement to reduce overconsumption of meat and increase plant-based consumption.
Her latest book Daring Democracy: Igniting Power Meaning and Connection for the America We Want correlates strongly with my own research into the narratives men and women recruit when deciding how to allocate resources and how to design power structures. Here is a quote from my proposal:
“Because female narratives don’t always follow male narratives about power we can better see how current systems might leave women in positions of power feeling powerless. Suddenly it makes sense that women don’t just want more power, we want to change the way power works.”
I’ve been gathering true stories men and women tell about their personal experiences with power. And there is a theme. Masculine narratives tend to define power as morally neutral. Women preface their stories with clear distinctions of good power versus bad power. Francis Moore Lappe’s new book basically says the same thing without pointing fingers at gender differences. Here is another quote from her in the NYTimes article:
“We took Charles Darwin, who in “Descent of Man” says that in primal tribal societies everything was judged good or bad solely as it affected the welfare of the tribe, and reduced him to survival of the fiercest.”
Personally I think it is important to highlight that women are much more likely to live according to narratives that address the moral nature of power. Mainly because I want to undermine the way women’s narratives are routinely discredited (attacked) as too emotional, unfocused, weak or my personal pet peeve as “utopian” by those who can only see through the lens of toxic male narratives. I think we need to do more to validate women’s narratives in order to strengthen and amplify women’s voices.
So … I think gender matters when we talk about these competing narratives. What do you think?
Do your stories have a spiritual message?
Or…perhaps we should ask ourselves what spiritual message do our stories tell? Because all storytelling delivers a spiritual message. The message may be spiritually rich or poor but it is there. And it seems like spirituality has been at the core of storytelling from the beginning. A recent article about newly discovered cave paintings in central Indonesia illustrates what is still a common trope – interpreting humanity through the lens of animal characteristics – from Aesop’s stories about the lion and the mouse to the three little pigs, animals have been recruited represent our values. Stories with animals tend to explore spiritual themes (compassion, courage, conservation) that illustrate the way we struggle to balance our lower and higher natures. Here is a quote from a Dec. 11, 2019 article:
Over forty thousand years ago the urge to tell a story represented far more than a desire for individual gain. Newly discovered images of the earliest example of storytelling featured “therianthropes” – characters that embody a mix of human and animal characteristics. Our storytelling instincts were far less about individual profit and much more about collective wellbeing. We risk a failure of the spirit when we forget this. (as well as a failure to address climate change and other global problems)
I first encountered ancient therianthropes in Museo del Oro in Bogata where solid gold characters blended the characteristics of humans and animal spirits. And more recently, when a friend who has a bad habit of suppressing his creative spirit to please others showed me a small brass tiger he carried in his pocket to remind him to act with courage. What animal spirit would improve the spiritual message in your storytelling?