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Shapeshifting


I wake up angry. I’d made the mistake of watching the news the night before, and what I perceive as the overall stupidity of a number of people had left me wanting to crawl into a bell tower with a rifle. Then, as I brew coffee, I make things worse by checking social media and discovering a post from someone whose religious affiliations do not, in my opinion, match the calloused, thinly disguised prejudice they spew. I’m at my parents’ house on the Santa Cruz coast with my two little ones, and the very fact that my presence poses a risk for all of us and that I feel like I have to hide my visit also pisses me off. What happened to good old-fashioned guilt emerging from NOT spending enough time with your parents? That’s the natural order of things in my opinion.

An hour later, my mom gets the kids started on their school work for the day—packets and Youtube videos—and I slip out for a walk on the beach. The coastline is mostly sunny with the classic ocean breeze, sea birds roaming around in noisy gangs, little crabs scuttling about, and people occasionally passing by with partners and dogs. But, despite the beauty, I’m having difficulty seeing what’s around me. Instead, my mind is considering scriptural passages to throw back at the post I’d seen on Facebook. “Hypocritical assholes,” I think, “I’ll give you a dose of your own religion!” My teeth grind. I’m also mentally assembling scientific data to include in my argument in order to hit them from all sides. I get angrier and angrier and more and more resentful as I walk. It gets so bad that I start envisioning assaulting a man who had recently verbally accosted my sister-in-law in a grocery store. “What do you have to say now you ignorant piece of shit!” I imagine screaming above him as he writhes on the ground.

I’m walking on the beach but I’m not here. I don’t smell that ocean tang. I don’t hear the sounds of life burgeoning around me. I don’t notice the smiles of people as they pass by. I don’t bask in the warm memories of growing up surfing here. Or of late-night fires on the beach with friends. I’m not thinking about the luxury of my kids getting to splash in the ocean tides later that afternoon. Of the big breakfast I had. Of the hordes of people out in the world who would love to be strolling in my shoes. Literally. I don’t try to put myself in the position of those who are lashing out, to try to understand why they might be reacting in the manner they are. Instead, I hate people for hating. I am blind to my own invisible privilege of having the education to judge people for being blind to their own invisible privilege. I want people who I view as inhumane to die from the virus because they don’t care who dies from the virus. I am furious with acts of selfishness committed out of fear, yet I feel violent and afraid. The stink of my own attitude cuts through my consciousness like a fart on a date. “Ah hell,” I think as I stop walking. “Nice job being a 'peaceful warrior.'” I realize I have to transform the anger somehow.

I recall Carol, a mentor during my time as a counselor in a teen-mom home close to twenty-years earlier. A Nazi concentration camp survivor, her life story had been astounding and her calm way of moving through the world nearly baffling. There had been one particularly difficult teen mom who, regardless of the nice things we’d done for her, made wild accusations of mistreatment and, while playing the victim’s role, victimized others. I was both angered and mildly afraid of the 6’2 hulking young mother. When I confessed this to Carol, she’d said, “Regardless of what happens, if you act with integrity and do not feed the rage she’s bringing into the home with your own reactions, then you won’t have to live with regret.” She paused thoughtfully before continuing in her slight German accent, “And, remember that empathizing and condoning are not the same action.”

I think about another mentor and friend, one in my current reality, who recently said that a great deal of what is happening on a political scale right now stands against nearly everything he holds sacred and that it’s a challenging practice to recognize his “lizard brain reactions” and “shape-shift” them into something loving. He told me, “On a daily basis I have to recall that at its core, life is impermanence and uncertainty. That the only real power I have is how I shape my responses to that which I cannot control. But, that is real power.”

I think about how, while care-taking a terminally ill spouse, I spent so much time trying to fix and control that I was often not present. I think about how I forgot to notice the beauty and small gestures of kindness taking place even in the midst of medical violence. At the time, I couldn’t find faith that life would ever return to a state other than suffering. Yet, it did.

I think about the relationship between my fiancé Cheri and I and how we work very hard on not attempting to control or change each other. Do I drive her nuts sometimes and visa versa? Um, yes, that’s being human. But, when I practice acceptance, I find beauty even in what might be considered her character defects, and I find comfort knowing that she loves me despite my own. Lately, she and I have felt some resentment that we are technically in the “honeymoon” phase of our relationship and, yet, have already had to face circumstances together that have driven some couples to divorce. Yet, it occurs to me that rather than seeing this as being slighted by the universe, I could remember that our relationship is an incredible gift. Not so long ago, we were both alone and somewhat disillusioned as to whether this would ever change. She was even considering getting lots of cats and moving into a small apartment and I’d quit my pathetic attempts to online date. And yet, 18 months later, we have each other to lean on and laugh with during extremely difficult times. We haven’t been slighted; we’ve been given grace.

The alarm on my phone suddenly chimes that it's time to turn around, so I start walking back toward my childhood home. The waves rush my feet, and I cackle a little as I jump back from the foam. Up ahead, I notice several uniformed men surrounding a seal I’d seen on the first leg of my walk. I’d assumed it was dead. But, it’s not and the men are there to assist it back into the water. I thank them and receive friendly nods in response. Thirty minutes later, I pass by a group of workers picking strawberries and listening to loud, mariachi music in a field adjacent to my parents’ house. A woman looks up from her basket, and I call out in Spanish to thank her. I feel gratitude that there are people doing this hard labor and that I get to eat strawberries. She looks slightly puzzled but waves and smiles in response. Finally, back at home, I pick up my little girl and, rather than allowing fear that she will be hurt by the world to permeate my consciousness, I think about the fact that I get to hang out with her today. Shapeshifting.

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