Community is a Verb

I am about to move into a co-housing community here in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It is called The Commons.  Technically, I currently live in a co-housing community. However, by all accounts over the years, the one I’ve been living in these last two years has lost many of its co-housing aspects. One resident recently described it to me as being more like a neighborhood than co-houseing. The co-housing community into which I’ll be moving has been going since 1998 (building started in 1991). I’m looking forward to experiencing the community, including the business meetings which are run using consensus.

I’ve been told that it once took five years to get it agreed that they would create a clothes line for the shared laundry facilitates. How realistic and practical is it to cultivate consensus-based community?

Twenty eight homes share four and half acres of land. I’ve read that sometimes co-housing centers around creating affordable housing. This community doesn’t fall into that category. As far as I can tell, I’m moving into a predominantly White middle class community. Some might call it upper middle class, if you go by the average cost to rent or purchase these houses. I’m sure that within this broad umbrella of “What middle class” is a degree of diversity and I look forward to getting to know other residents and hearing their stories.

Co-housing, after all, isn’t for the faint hearted and is a distinct conscious living choice. Who are these people who have made this choice?

Presently, the community has plenty of elders and only a handful of children. Some children are in two parent homes, some are in single parent families. I know the community would like to see more diversity in age – more young families moving in, perhaps. I was told that once upon a time, the population was very international – in the sense that it had many residents from different European countries.

Twice a week, dinners are held in the communal dining area, cooked by residents who volunteer. Well, they volunteer as part of their commitment to doing at least six hours of work per month – work that serves the collective. I’m told that everyone residing in The Commons, including renters, commits to these hours. I noticed that in looking to rent at The Commons, prospective landlords were very keen that their tenants understood the ethos of co-housing and would participate actively in the community.

Communal space includes the kitchen and dining hall, a small exercise room, a children’s play room, guest rooms, a sitting room and laundry facilities (though most people seem to have washers and dryers in their homes). People in the community are encouraged to hold events in the common space – the dining hall can be space for a yoga class, an art workshop, a spoken word performance evening, a guest lecturer.

Community, as UC -Irvine Professor Michael Montoya says, is a verb. Yet, often we like to think that community exists outside of us and we walk into it to feel its warm embrace. We search for community. We crave community. This – as Parker Palmer observes in The Promise of Paradox -is subscribing to a myth. When we pursue this myth, turning to community for comfort, we often find ourselves disappointed. We enter into community wanting to be passive recipients of its benevolence. We seek solace in community.

Yet, community is a verb. We don’t stand there and receive it like we might a blessing from a priest. We weave it into how we be and do on a daily basis. Community is a continuous dance of giving and receiving and of negotiating.  I’ve been told that sometimes the people most excited about moving into The Commons are the ones who end up not liking it. I haven’t heard any specific stories to back that up, but I can imagine it. I can imagine people moving in with high expectations of pleasant gatherings, warm greetings as you open your front door and a sense of belonging.

They enter into community oblivious of the tensions that will inevitably arise in themselves and with others. As Parker Palmer explains, moving into an intentional community gave him and his family everything they had hoped for and the exact opposite of those very same desires.

I am moving into a tiny one room + bathroom house in The Commons. I’ll be using the communal laundry facilities. When the weather gets warm, I’ll likely be sitting outside in my tiny patio. I am unlikely to to hole myself up because I’ll want physical space and human connection. This will no doubt be a key determining factor in how I experience The Commons co-housing community.

What will I find? How will I experience being in this particular community? What will I bring to it? How will I play a role in cultivating nourishing community? You see, community is a neutral word – it isn’t inherently healthy or life affirming. After all, Jonestown was a community.

Community is a verb. I community. I commit to unity. Unity with whom? And in what ways? Questions. Questions. Questions. I’m looking forward to living into them.

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What is pain to the collective body?

Today is 21 November 2015. I haven’t posted since June – six months.

What has been going on in the meantime? Lots of chronic nerve pain in my legs which has meant I’ve stayed away from my computer – even with efforts to create an ergonomic set up and notwithstanding technology for dictation and the like. Chronic pain at a high level in these months has meant I was unable to concentrate, as well as experiencing major physical discomfort.

I still have chronic pain, and at times at high levels. I’m back at the keyboard, however, because my concentration seems to have returned. And I’m learning to live with the pain – to do activities despite it.

What does it mean to live with constant pain? How does this impact on how I show up in the world? With how I interact with others?

I ask these questions to myself while also thinking about the notion of chronic pain in terms of collective identity, behaviors and dynamics. Two years ago, I moved to New Mexico in the southwest United States. In spring 2014, I attended a training session with community organizers. In one exercise we put ourselves into groups. Each group was ask to give two presentations: (1) how do others perceive your group and (2) how does your group perceive itself?

One group described how the outside world spoke about them with words including lazy, scroungers thieves. They used similar words to articulate how they describe themselves. Many of us cried as we listened to and watched this group express nothing less than self-loathing.

One of the organizers would later comment that in his decades of doing organizing across the USA, he had rarely felt such deep pain in a community.

Pain.

I am learning to live with it.  Sometimes, I get to points where I can’t imagine not having it. Sometimes, I create stories that tell me I deserve it or its somehow my fault. Sometimes, I become ashamed of being in pain and I deepen the burden of the pain by chastising my self for it.

How might such behaviors, akin to those I’ve been giving life to, manifest collectively? How do we work constructively with emotional and physical pain in a collective body?

We are a world experiencing great, heartbreaking pain. What exactly is the impact of this pain on us all? On how we be and create together?

Pain in my legs and back, I’m nevertheless stepping into these questions.

 

 

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A USAmerican story…

In February 1992, I left the USA to go live in Europe. I started out in Germany and then went to England to do an MA. I stayed. In October 2000, I moved back to the USA to do human rights and anti-racism work. I lasted 18 months and returned to London. Fast forward to summer 2013. It wasn’t really planned, but I returned to the USA and this time it feels like I might have moved back to create a home here for a significant amount of time.

I have regularly been coming back to the USA while living in the UK. I slip easily (to my dismay, sometimes) back into my midwestern accent. For almost twenty years, I was living in a country where English is the dominant language and where most of the people are White and Christian (which is the demographic of the town where I grew up in the USA).  In other words, I rarely felt totally distanced or detached from life in the USA – though there were no shortages of very significant social and political differences, i.e. the National Health Service in the UK is radically different to USA healthcare systems.

Despite my regular returns to these shores and my living in a not so radically different country, I’m in a state of shock by being back here.

I am continually trying to make sense of life in these United States (to borrow from a Reader’s Digest title). Of course, with our wondrously diverse population, many different lives are lived out here. However, I do speculate that the vast majority of people living in the USA are strongly impacted by a small number of narratives. I am constantly talking with people to try and get clarity on these narratives, these story lines that are woven into our lives and shape our culture.

In the past couple of weeks, I think I have arrived at a greater understanding of one of them.

This prevalent story begins with the nuclear family – our immediate relatives of parents and siblings. We have ritual to bring us into wider tribe, e.g. pledge of allegiance at school or the national anthem at a baseball game or the baseball game itself. Yet, our primary tribe seems to be this nuclear family or that has at least been the ideal, the aspiration.  The fenced-in house with one family in it and maybe even a dog or cat. Definitely, this was a dominant image of the USAmerican dream when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s.

And it seems that in the USA, many people very early on (and I’m not at all being scientific here, I’m speculating – BIG TIME) acquire a fear. They become afraid of being rejected by tribe. This fear might start within this nuclear family. It then expands out into the other communities-families we inhabit. This fear is cultivated in our school system. Going to school becomes about popularity and fitting in, about doing better than one another because that makes you more worthy of being a member of the tribe.

The fear of getting kicked out of tribe is a powerful one. Back in our early days as a species, getting kicked out of tribe meant death. You couldn’t survive alone in the wilderness. You would very quickly die.

These days, I’m not sure it is much different. Despite the emphasis in the USA on the lone ranger (who wasn’t lone at all, was he? but that is by the by),  the independent individual and the primacy of the nuclear family looking after itself, we cannot live alone and in isolation. People may not quickly die physically. Instead, we die slow spiritual deaths. Spirit refers to animating life force. Isolated and alone -even when surrounded by people – we become half alive, less of who we can be as living and breathing creatures capable of consciousness and autonomy. We are slowly suffocated. Some of us can be described as sleep-walkers. Others as zombies – the walking dead.

Many people (yes, yes, still speculating BIG TIME) grow up in the USA desperate to be in tribe.   We adapt all sorts of behaviors to ensure we aren’t kicked out – be it by our nuclear family or our peers in one community or another. Or we create tribes. And often these tribes are rooted not in love, but in the fear and sense of worthlessness that unconsciously led us to create them or be drawn to them in the first place.

At the heart of this desperation, is the nagging sense that we are not good enough and not worthy of belonging. The vast self-help industry in the USA has much of its foundation rooted in the existence of this widespread condition: fear of, or sense of, abandonment and rejection and the accompanying sense of  worthlessness. At its root, I get the impression we could also interpret this condition as a fear of not being loved or loveable. We believe we are going to get kicked out of tribe or have been kicked out of tribe because we are not worthy of tribal love.

Chicano artivist Israel Franscico Haros Lopez and I recently started talking about this subject. We began to explore how it is that in other cultures – ones we often label ‘traditional’ – the sense of belonging is deeply instilled in the human being from birth. This sense of belonging extends well beyond a nuclear family and even beyond a tribe of people. This sense of belong extends to all creation. In some cultures, my life as a human being is understood to be interconnected with all life – before and after I came into being.

In summer 2013, I had an experience walking in the mountains, while visiting the Peñasco Theater Collective, of sensing that I am from the earth upon which I was walking and from the sun that was shining on my face. My blood and bones are made of the food my mother ate, which is grown in the land, which was fertilized by who knows what animals, which contains the blood and bones of who knows what creatures, which gave rise to plants and trees and all sorts that fed on the sun and the water. Like that I am one with all creation – before I was born, while I am a live, and after I die.

When I experienced this sense, I felt an astonishing sense of security through connectedness. My then anxiety-riddled self breathed a sigh of relief, felt at ease and gave rise to the thought: “My gosh, how can I ever think I’m alone when I am made up of and connected to so much!”

Admittedly, that belief can be too abstract at times to offer up comfort. It does, however, put me in my place as being no more no less than a tree or a piece of dirt. But I won’t go further into this idea, which is related but different fodder for another blog post – the inflated sense of self people often create in the USA, as a reaction to their overwhelming sense of worthlessness and their fear of being rejected by tribe.

Ahh, yes, let me return to this story of abandonment and rejection.

I have this sense that many of us living here in the USA show up in our lives fueled by this sense of worthlessness and this fear of deadly rejection and abandonment. And this fear and self-rejection is constantly toyed with, taken advantage of and even cultivated by people in positions of power within our systems – political, economic and social.  In short, from birth to death, we are encouraged to stay afraid and to strive for worthiness and acceptance and affirmation through superficial means, e.g., status, money, power over others, submission to others. We end up constantly grasping for that-which-will-save-us-or-keep-us-alive.

Like this, the average teen-ager in the USA (and often the average adult) seeks to construct a distinct identity – figure out “Who am I” while also trying to understand what it takes to survive, to stay in tribe. And when the individual does not have a way of connecting with a sense of belonging to something larger than their own life and experience, they look to the world around them for clues and for affirmation. A fundamental question for people here, starting at a young age and often carrying on through adulthood is: What do I need to do or how do I need to be in order to be loved, valued and accepted by tribe?

Israel and I contrasted this with other cultures where the teenager’s primary question might instead be: What is my role in this tribe, in this community? What is my fundamental purpose to serve us all? As an adult, the question lingers: How can I serve the tribe better? People ask these questions while having a firm sense of belonging to and interconnectedness not just with tribe, but with all of creation, with ancestors and with spirits (animating life forces) that are beyond the reach of our five basic senses.

I say this, aware that in some so-called traditional communities, people experience oppression doled out in the name of the collective or in the name of cultural-traditional norms.  I mention this point because I don’t want the narrative I’m trying to highlight here to be missed or tossed aside because your attention is now focusing on making a challenge to me: You are romanticizing communities that have strong roots in the collective (as opposed to the individual).

I’m doing no such thing – but I won’t go into that subject further.

Instead, I want to bring your attention back to the narrative. Back to a story of the fear of abandonment and rejection, a story of a desire to be loved, wanted, deemed worthwhile to belong to tribe and thus allowed to live. When we are fear-full and grasping for a sense of worth, we tend to wear either the hat of oppressor or oppressed. We, the people of the United States of America, are prone to being in fight or flight mode – to being jittery and insecure grasping to be saved or to exert power.

My, my, what wretched state of being. And what an awful condition for democracy.

Which is why, I want to pose questions that I, Israel and others I’ve been talking with about in relation to this story: What rites of passage and cultural norms do we need to create here in the USA for young people -whatever their background- to be able to embody an intrinsic sense of belonging and connection with community, tribe, planet and forces bigger than their and all our tiny selves?  How do we, the people of the United States of America, live into a different story?  How do we transform from a culture of fear and self-loathing (when a sense of worthlessness is taken to the extreme) into a culture of love, acceptance and unconditional belonging?

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What if the Industrial Prison Complex is the state we’re in?

What does the large scale industrial prison complex in the U.S.A reflect about who and how we are being? As a collective, we’ve created it and perpetuate it. This morning, this question was front of my mind. Earlier this year, I made a point of watching the HBO series that ran from 2002-2008, The Wire. The show takes place in drug-infested Baltimore, Maryland. Woven throughout each season is “The Game.” By the end of the five seasons, the show has introduced viewers to “The Game” as played – with a mixture of willingness and submission- by drug dealers, police, politicians, civil servants, educators and journalists. What if the game is really a prison, and we are all in it?

We have, in the USA, the highest incarceration rate in the world. Many of our prisoners suffer from mental illness and/or substance addiction. A significant number of prisoners of both genders have been – before entering prison – subjected to intense abuse and serious trauma.

This morning I was thinking about what it says about our society that we have all these people locked up (more than 2 million people). They are locked up in places unlikely to restore their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. I was wondering if our industrial prison complex somehow mirrors a general disposition that is woven into USA culture – knowing that this is a very sweeping statement. I’m referring to a disposition rooted in anger, fear, the need to shame and blame and a tendency to be unforgiving.

And we – those coming from communities much less likely to have our folks end up in prison – look at all these prisoners and think they are our bad bunches. They are different from you and me. Yet, in the watching The Wire, I saw all sorts people from all sorts of backgrounds hustling, playing The Game in ways – even those with good intentions – that drew upon dishonesty, greed, the need for status, fear of who-knows-what. They blame others, they shame others, they seem intent on increasing their power by diminishing the power in others.

The Game. The Game is a prison and we’re in it, day-in and day-out. And from this prison we collectively create the literal bars of our national Industrial Prison Complex. What if the USA industrial prison complex reflects a collective reluctance to stand consciously in the anger, fear, the need to shame and blame and be unforgiving that dominate our relationships with our selves and each other? What if too many of us feel like if we try and leave The Game, our lives will fall apart and the thought is more scary and more oppressive to us than staying in The Game?

What if too many of us are like the prisoner who commits a petty crime immediately upon leaving jail, or even before he or she is released, in order to stay in prison? Why? Because they have been behind bars so long that it is familiar and comforting. They know the rules, they have routine, it is hard to imagine who or what will catch them if they start to stumble when they step outside the prison.

What if the USA industrial prison complex is a big, out-there-for-all-to-see, reminder of something alive within us – the people who comprise the society in which it exists?

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Love and Justice amidst the pain….

Well, it has been over a month since I’ve written here. March has been a hard month. I’ve been battling with sciatica – inflammation of the sciatic nerve, the largest nerve in the body. Literally it is a pain in the butt. And the back of the legs. And sometimes the sides and front. I was told by a doctor and a physio-therapist I saw in India that physio-therapy should crack it and from then on in, I needs must be regular about keeping my core muscles strong.

I know this – this need to keep my core strong. I broke my back in 2003 and promised myself after a successful spinal fusion that I would always look after my back. Out of respect to my amazing body, the surgeon who fixed it, the NHS that airlifted me from the scene of the accident and gave me treatment without any paperwork – never mind the myriads of paperwork privatized insurance creates simply for getting blood tests here in the USA.   I promised myself that.

Only I broke the promise. I became aware of how much so in January 2014, when I was doing Elevate – a circus arts intensive with Wise Fool New Mexico. I saw that I wasn’t as flexible as I had been, after seven or so years of regular pilates, hikes in the hills and dance as a form of meditation. I remember getting mad at myself for breaking the promise, for letting me and my body down. For being in the state-I-was-in.

My fellow Elevators consistently told me: don’t be so hard on yourself, you are getting back in shape now and that is what matter. In other words – be kind and compassionate to yourself. At the same time, be firm. Getting muscles back to fitness requires discipline.

Fast forward to just over a year later. In the meantime, I took up cycling – something I had not done for years. I tried to go hiking regularly and walk for no other purpose than to walk for well-being. I started a habit of dancing meditation daily and a little bit of core-strengthening exercises at home everyday. And now here I am – debilitated by chronic pain and weak legs. I thought I was going in the opposite direction. What happened?

I won’t speculate on that here. I will instead point out that I feel I am in that same place I was in during Elevate:  being tasked with manifesting (displaying the qualities of) trust, acceptance and non-judgment when I am often finding myself feeling angry, frustrated and despondent. In the last three weeks, despite physio-therapy and core-strengthening work, the condition has worsened rather than improved.

Consequently, I’m having one of those moments where I find myself often wanting to be mad at the cards I’m being dealt. In my mind – perhaps fodder for another post – this happening now is very unfair. As I texted to a friend the other day, I think “the universe is shitting on me.”

My being angry and frustrated under the circumstances is understandable. Thing is, spending too much time with that anger and frustration doesn’t serve me well. It tenses my muscles, for starters – thus possibly exacerbating the condition. It makes me grumpy in my other relationships – with people, with physical space, with everything. This casts a cloud over everything and makes me even more angry and frustrated.

A vicious cycle.

Well, I’m here and it has been nearly twenty minutes since I sat down to write this and I can’t write anymore because it is too painful to sit.

So, what’s my point? I think we are all guaranteed that life will at times give us what we think we don’t deserve, what seems unfair, what hurts, what creates suffering. And I guess these days I’m meditating on the way that my relationship with the suffering itself matters. I might not be responsible for the cause and for awhile I might not have any clue how to remedy the situation. The one thing I have control over is how I choose to react and respond to this – to a sense of powerlessness and injustice and to the anger and rage that goes with it.

It isn’t easy, but I’m trying to respond with the practice of love. This means discipline – which I think of as justice-at-the-personal-level: holding myself accountable. This in turn means letting myself be mad without clinging to it. It means doing necessary exercises, in watching my posture, in eating healthy and in doing all that I can to heal. It means being aware of how I’m being with others – it is easy when suffering with chronic pain to take it out on people around me, to be testy and grumpy and impatient. It means being aware AND taking care to be kind and patient with others – rather than simply going around being grumpy and apologizing for it, using the sciatica as an excuse.

I guess, all in all, I’m meditating on what it means to practice love while experiencing pain, while feeling powerless and plagued by injustice. Obviously, this is all very micro, very personal – yet, I suspect I’m learning lessons for the macro, for the collective and the communal…in due time, I’ll let you know if that’s the case.

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Lost and found all at the same time…

I haven’t posted in over a month. I was in India and London and I found or made little time for being on-line, except to share pictures with family here in the USA via FaceBook. I’m glad for it. I hadn’t been to India in ten years and it was a time to re-connect with family. Despite language barriers with some members – I don’t speak our mother tongue – I left India feeling that stronger bonds had been forged even with relatives with whom I could not do much more than smile, hold hands and shed tears over the language gap that fell between us. I was in India to celebrate the wedding of a cousin’s son. I was also there mourning loss from connections not formed and lives not led because I had grown up assimilated into USA Anglo culture.

I wrote about this last year in I am angry – acknowledging the price of assimilation.

This trip to India, I was fascinated by how I started weaving new narratives around my assimilation experience.

One new narrative emerged around religion, culture and ritual. I come from a very religious family. In some ways, it is extraordinary that all three of us (my brother, sister and I) grew up as assimilated as we did given in particular how steeped both sides of our family are in scripture and ritual. My father, for example, is incredibly well versed in the traditions of our family practice of what is now called Hinduism (but is more accurately called Sanatana Dharma).

Until recently, I have tended to focus on the loss that goes with not being rooted in our religion and culture. Sure, we had pujas – religious ceremonies – in our house, but we-the-children didn’t inherit or claim the practices as our own.

My cousin’s son’s wedding included endless rituals. My uncle explained many of them to me. Early on, we were in the groom’s family room at the wedding hall and my uncle mentioned how one icon represented our ancestors. You see, he told me, we call them in to be here with us for guidance and blessing and at the end we will ask them to leave. He said this after he explained to me the ways in which we also were calling in the elements (ether, air, water, fire and earth) and the planetary forces into the wedding ceremony.

When I heard all this I wanted to laugh out loud. At once, I saw so clearly the absurdity and the profound universality of a journey I had been taking to find just these sorts of rituals and relationships. That is to say, little brown skinned me with roots in one of the oldest cultures in the planet had become a new age, hippy-ish wanderer grasping on to the traditions of indigenous cultures in what we now call the Americas. At one point, I said to my cousins that it was extraordinary to be watching my family members perform rituals that go back thousands of years. My cousin’s son – age 28 – corrected me with ‘hundreds of thousands of years.’

Ancient spiritual ties that I was searching for were right under my nose all along.

Yet, I didn’t tune into them. As I look back, I see that I often came very close. I had the calling, but the not the courage – the word that comes to mind – to follow hunches that wanted to nudge me, for example, to live in India for a year to learn the language and culture of my family (I ended up doing a meagre 2 months when I was thirty). The ‘almost-but-not-quite’ efforts to root myself in my Indian and Vedic heritage is fodder for another post, perhaps.  One of my main points here is that at the same time I mourned the loss of my roots, I smirked at how – like many White people – I became a searcher, grasping at the traditions of others to fill the void.

The point doesn’t end there, though.  Underneath the smirk, lay satisfaction. Talking with one cousin, I found myself stepping into a narrative that tells a story of how I – uprooted and lost – eventually rooted myself through a mish-mash of experiences in different traditions and working with multiple communities of people. Hats off in particular to the School of Movement Medicine, which I used to describe affectionately as hosting a practice where “White people go tribal” (I know, I know, White people have their own tribes…yet, people knew what I meant when I said this and when I say ‘White’ I was including my coconut self). Through my work with the School and other practices, I brought to consciousness inside me a connection with our ancestors, our elements and our spirit.

Maybe that’s the overarching point of all this, of my journey to date: different tribes have their rituals and their inheritances which seem unique to them, but all of it distills down to commonality. Our ancestors, elements and spirit – we share these. No me, no my or mine.

We need these connections. I’ll be truthful, I’m a bit envious of the roots people in my family have, especially the younger generations who are doing a wondrous job of fusing the ancient with the modern. Ritual brings connection and comfort. Getting up in the morning and starting one’s day by going to the prayer room or the altar in the corner of the kitchen and connecting with all that was and all that is can be a beautiful, nourishing experience.

As far as I can tell, this is precisely what many new age seekers are doing – drawing upon anything and everything to create comforting rituals that have interconnectedness at their heart. Coming from an ancient tradition that is often a source to which new age seekers are drawn, I used to scoff at such seekers. However, of course, I’m guilty of what I charge.

I stay in a room in a house in New Mexico where I’ve created a sacred altar. Sometimes I feel sad when I look at it – I recall my parents’ altar – one that has deep roots but no longer feels like part of my inheritance. I wouldn’t know how to worship at it. My altar is a hodge-podge: crystals, shells and objects acquired through invented new age ceremony and objects rooted in ancient traditions.

At the same time as feeling the sadness, I take joy in this altar and in other practices I’ve created for myself through my connections with others and with a variety of traditions. These practices are enabling me to be connected to ancestors, elements and spirit. They provide me with comfort. They might not be as powerful energetically as ancient vedic rituals performed according to custom, but they do have power.

One cousin  went so far as to suggest that I am indeed very powerful these days, having created connection to ancestors, elements and spirit within my self and not being reliant on externalities and specific inherited rituals.

Maybe.

I don’t feel comfortable assessing how powerful I am or not, but I do know that my sanity is currently tied to my newly found capacity to root my creativity and power in ancestral ties, the elements and spirit, as well as in love and justice. This rooting has allowed me to overturn an oppressive regime of being led by fear, loathing and  punishment.

I see people not of Vedic-India ancestry grabbing bits and pieces of the science, philosophy and ritual out of context. I sometimes want to be critical of them, because what they are doing does seem out of context and I often assume it (rightly or wrongly) to be ignorant. For example, rooms of people chanting mantras without understanding the true meaning of the words, with much mispronunciation and without understanding their history and origins.

At the same time, I am aware that because of my upbringing I end up relating to it all in much the same way as the ‘foreigners’. Now, after this trip to India, I am starting to think that what really matters is the end result – whatever the origin of spirit-rituals I may use, do my practices result in my being inspired, feeling grounded and using creativity and power to step up against injustice and co-create beloved community?

As my twenty-eight year old, newly married cousin pointed out to me during one of our late night chats about our family: “You say that you lost our ways, but it seems to me that you are deep in them – you’ve just arrived at it from a different path.” Well, this isn’t a verbatim quote, but it is the gist of what he observed and what I, too, had come to see while I was in India.

What once was a story solely of loss and longing is now also a story of wholeness and connection. Hallelujah for that!

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Picture from my cousin’s son’s wedding, of the groom’s family room at the wedding hall (Feb 2015, Bangalore India)

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Where might I find the village?

I haven’t posted for nearly two months. My father had a massive heart attack on 10th November and then triple bypass on 14 November. He is 83 years old and had aged a lot in the year before the heart attack. Some of you will be familiar with this – that time when you see one of your parents and think “Wow. You’ve gone to the next age!” My last post was about cultivating kindness and beloved community. These past months have taken me deeper into these practices.

Major medical incidents such as my father’s heart attack can push a family to its edges. These past months, my parents, two siblings and I have been to the depths of hell and the heights of beauty. Physical and emotional suffering woven into the literal and figurative opening of hearts – not just my father’s.

Five weeks after the heart attack, I left my parents’ house for some rest and relaxation. For me this meant spending time where there is sunshine and blue sky, hiking up a mountain, being with friends, playing with an adorable puppy, potlucks, dancing and sleeping through the night.

My mind more able to give thought taking in the big picture, I reflected on our family situation.  I have often heard it said that “It takes a village to raise a child.” Now I feel certain that it takes a village to care for our elders.

What a strange culture we have created here in the United States. Broken down into nuclear families, as our parents get older we – their children – are faced with the question of their care. I have a friend whose grandmother never wanted to burden anyone with her care. When the time seemed right, she moved to a community of elders where she lived independently, in her own home. I think she was in her late 80s when she did this. When the time seemed right, she shifted within the same community to assisted living. Finally, when the time seemed right, still in that community, she went into hospice where she died.

Her family visited frequently. This arrangement worked well for her.

My parents are from India. They come from a tradition where elderly parents anticipate living with one of their children. The two most likely scenarios are living with the eldest son and his family or living with an unmarried daughter. I see that some Indian-origin families here in the USA are creating homes that are set up for joint households. We haven’t done that in our family.

Now my parents are in their late 70s and early 80s. They still live in the house where I grew up – the suburbs of Chicago. They would like to stay here – it is familiar, what they know. I’m aware that the community of friends they once had has dispersed – Indian couples their age have gone to live with their children in different states across the USA. The neighbors in the street have also dispersed – only a few of the original families remain.

My parents have asked me – single, freelance daughter than I am – to come live with them indefinitely. I see this as an understandable request – though it isn’t without complexity and I haven’t responded with an immediate and simple “YES!”

When I think about the idea in depth, I find myself concluding that children and parents living together isn’t a solution in and of itself. When elders have become isolated (as mine have), putting total responsibility on their care to one or two of their children is asking a lot – in my opinion.

If I were to move here to the Chicagoland area, my sister lives nearby. So, that would mean two children to share responsibility for elder care. Though better than one, I think two daughters (one married) living near each other to care for our parents would still be a daunting responsibility, in the absence of strong wider community.  We have a brother who lives in DC with his wife. They, too, would be part of our core community – albeit from a distance – taking responsibility for elder care. Again, this seems to be placing an unrealistic amount of responsibility on grown children.

If there comes a point when my parents are living with me or even nearby to me – whether in the house they’ve lived in for decades or somewhere new – I would want to ensure that I have strong roots in community. And that I could integrate my parents into this community. What I am imagining is a scenario where, while the bottom line for their care might come down to me, in effect they and I are all being cared for by a community that consists of much more than the my parents, my siblings and I and professional service providers, e.g. doctors.

Perhaps naively, I am sometimes imagining a scenario where I am living with my parents – only it is very different from the present situation. We are in a community where we know the majority of our neighbors, where my parents have friends and can walk down a colorful, vibrant street and feel safe, known and welcomed. They only need shoes on their feet to walk, however slowly, to a nearby coffee shop or grocery story. The neighborhood is multigenerational. Our house/apartment has  a constant flow of people of all ages streaming through it.

My mother knits beautifully. My father gardens beautifully. I’ve not taken to either myself -but maybe someone else on the street relishes in learning tricks of the trade from them. Or maybe I do take up the spade, and with help from others and my dad directing from a chair, I cultivate a fruit and vegetable garden. If we aren’t living near my sister, maybe when I travel, neighbors are happy to check in on my parents or a friend stays over – a friend who has been to the house so many times that there is trust and camaraderie between them and my parents.

Ahh, but this is all very idyllic you say. People are too busy with just trying to care for their own families without helping others out. Maybe. What if this isn’t about one family helping out another? What if I am imagining a different paradigm rooted in mutuality rather than tit- for-tat, rooted in interdependence rather than independence? What if I am imagining community rooted in cultivating all of our resources to care for one another as though we are, in fact, extended family-regardless of blood and marriage ties?

I once met a woman who lives in a rural English village. When her husband was hit with a long term illness, she didn’t have to cook for one year. For one year, without her asking, people in her village supplied her and her husband with meals.

I get the impression our situation isn’t unique. Sure, some aspects of it are very particular to our individual and group dynamics. But as I talk to my peers – those of us in our 40s and 50s with elderly parents – I find that many aspects of my family situation are shared by others.

It takes a village to raise a child.

It takes a village to care for our elders.

Right now I feel like asking: Can someone please tell me, where might I find the village?

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