Thursday, January 26, 2017


An interesting concept has made the rounds of the internet lately. People have begun to notice that the “Facebook algorithm” determines the content we see online. The programs, designed to please us, track what we view, what we like, and what we comment on, then give us more of it. We then receive a narrower and narrower stream of input, all of which confirms our feelings, our opinions, and our world view.

In other words, we only hear what we sympathize with.

A lot of us have lost track of the distinction, so here’s a refresher—to sympathize means to be in keeping, accord, or harmony with; to share in suffering or grief with; or to be in sympathy intellectually.

It’s a like-attracts-like kind of relationship.

I’m voting for empathy from here on out. Be on guard against anyone who promotes conflict, question anyone who says “others” are to blame, and overthrow those marketing algorithms that promote sameness. Instead, empathize with real human beings of all kinds.

And here’s our refresher on empathy, which is the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either in the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.

In other words (because that’s a lot of words), having empathy means you can put yourself in the place of someone entirely different than you without having their point of view spelled out for you.

It’s an act that builds bridges between people who are not alike.

To be even more direct, sympathy says, “You have the same pain I do. I get that,” but, conversely, leaves out the pain of others, “Your pain is not my pain.” Empathy says, “I see your pain. I’ve known pain. All pain sucks. I’m sorry for your pain, my friend.”

What if, rather than a competition or a barrier, our pains, unique though they may be, became a bridge? What if we use empathy to build that bridge?

I belong to a segment of society once considered property to be disposed of at another’s whim, with no legal standing, no right to own property, no vote, no mention in the Declaration of Independence. We’ve only recently won freedom from those bonds, yet we are still dismissed, marginalized, judged by our appearance. I may not be more likely to be killed by police because of my body, but I’m more likely to be killed by my partner.

I’m not saying this makes my fears or pains more or stronger or even the same as anyone else’s. They do make me empathetic. They do make me yearn—and act--for a world where no one feels “other” in any degree, for any reason.

I heard a lot of bigoted talk growing up, some directed toward groups that included me, but most of it directed toward people other than me. Do you know what I learned then? I learned to fear being different, to avoid being “other.” I saw that my safety lay in staying within the circle of sympathy.

And do you know what my mature, adult response to that is? No. I choose empathy. I choose to see pain in another’s eyes and say, “I see your pain. I’ve known pain. All pain sucks. I’m sorry for your pain, my friend.”

I choose to yearn—and act—for a world where no one is other.

We are all so weird and wonderful and unique.

Friday, January 13, 2017

In Patience

Some people call these little flowers impatiens. They don’t really look much like the impatiens I grew up with further north, so I call them vinca. Anyway, they’re my kind of plant. They’re hardy and tenacious and bloom daily.

I am a reluctant and less-than-talented gardener, but I enjoy refurbishing my yard twice a year. Fall is time for trimming back, weeding, mulching, and getting ready for the few months of relative down time the plants give us in this climate. It takes time to do it right—at least, it does when you do it by hand—but it’s very satisfying. Peaceful.

I frequently cringe over the institutional landscaping philosophy down here. All floral plantings in the medians and development entrances get scrapped four times a year. A crew comes in, clears all the plants out as soon as the blooming dies down, then replaces them with new plants in the peak of bloom. I suppose everyone wants to see where their HOA fees go, but I can’t get behind that “we need it instantly and we need it perfect” mentality.

It seems wasteful to me—and irresponsible. In The Little Prince, the fox says, “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.” Doesn’t that apply to plants, too? Anyway, I feel a tie to my hardworking vinca, in blooming season or not.

Don’t get me wrong; they bloom all year. But in fall, some branches die off and little baby plants emerge into the sunshine that die-off creates. When not as many plants bloom for a little while, it can look a bit scraggly. But adolescent humans can get leggy and we don’t throw them out. Besides, fresh mulch makes everything all right.

I’ve had another lesson in patience lately. My loyal Green Car had a day when it periodically didn’t start. I took it to my amazing mechanics, who couldn’t find the problem (of course it started for them all day!), but tightened everything anyway. So now I try to start my car far enough ahead that I can make other arrangements if it doesn’t start. I start it five minutes before we leave for the bus, so I have time to call a neighbor if it won’t go—that kind of thing. Those extra minutes of preparation time have really calmed down a lot of the rushing in my life. In our lives, since I’m nearly always driving the kids somewhere.

So far, the Green Car has started every single time since that one day. And every single time, I give thanks. I truly appreciate my car. Thinking of the gymnastics I’d have to go through and the favors I’d have to ask if I didn’t have a working car makes me so grateful!

It’s easy to get caught up in the dryer timer that’s on the fritz or the leggy flowerbeds, but why? Everything has its season.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Hunting Over Fallow Fields

The hawk has haunted me the last few weeks.

Part of me knows that, with his habitat shrinking in ten and twenty-acre increments, he has every reason to sit on the edge of our preserve and claim his territory.

Part of me reflects on the symbolism of the hawk, seeing the need for clear vision, intensity, and ferocious drive in my life.

And just as I relegate the hawk’s metaphorical message to superstition, he stoops across my windshield as I leave the neighborhood. And the next night, as I wait at a red light, a beautiful, enormous owl flights straight across the intersection in clear sight beneath the stoplights. The owl underlines the hawk’s message with his own symbolism of night vision, meditation, and clarity.

I feel this past year has been a year for my mind, creative drive, and pen (keyboard) to lie fallow. My creative soil felt thin, dry, and exhausted. These days, even wildly popular authors feel pressured to pile one success on top of another, so it’s hard to value time spent…waiting. Especially when I’m not recovering from a successful harvest.

Or am I?

If I’ve made any resolution for this year, it’s to question society’s definitions of everything. What do I consider time well spent? What do I consider a worthy goal achieved? What crop do I want to harvest?

Right now, I have a contentment that I imagine resembles that of my mid-Atlantic farming ancestors’ in January. Our home feels warm and cozy, filled with laughter, music, and growth. We have been blessed with food for our table and a roof over our heads. We continue to clear our spaces of the material goods that weigh us down, keeping what brings us joy. I feel our children, growing like any healthy young creatures, need less constant tending. Contentment.

Why does the hawk’s lone, plaintive, fierce cry haunt my peace?

Perhaps because I, like him, cannot wait for the spring with its new, tender crops and frisking, careless targets. My prey, less substantial than his, feels no less primal to me. I yearn to soar seeking clarity and stoop for the words that latch onto others. I want to tear open what we seem to struggle with and show everyone that the answers lie inside the problems.

Glennon Doyle Melton calls our world brutiful. And it is. It is brutal and beautiful, both at once and both entirely.

The hawk knows.