July 21, 2020

Let This Be a Time When
Dear Readers, Seekers, and Imaginers,

I last wrote in early March, four months ago, before pandemic became part of our daily conversation; before we could no longer ignore the violence and hatred bred in our culture, exposed unquestionably on video; before nightmares of plague, loss, and confusion erupted in our dreams. So much that is thoughtful, educational, and wise has already been said about our current national situation, and more will come: I hope to add to that discussion. Our country is undergoing a great fracturing and dissolution, and all of us are bearing witness. Our minds are weary and our hearts ache, but let this be a time when our outrage at injustice fuels right action; let it also be a time when we listen respectfully to each other’s stories, and not just listen, but hear.

Stories are how we say, “This is who I am, this is my life,” but one of the most mysterious aspects of the stories we tell is that we often don’t realize we are telling them. We meet a stranger at the dog park and soon we’re exchanging vignettes about our first pets. At the grocery checkout, we have a brief conversation with the clerk (through masks!) about how COVID is affecting our lives. From these encounters we walk away a bit more lighthearted, a bit more alive, though we often can’t say why. Having crossed the invisible bridge of empathy (the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes), we recognize in the other common human experiences and briefly feel less isolated and alone.

A story I like to tell about universal human experience occurred when I visited a book group that was discussing The Conditions of Love. One of the participants grabbed me by the arm and proclaimed that the mother in my novel was just like her mother. Soon another participant chimed in: she had a sister just like my character. Another woman had an aunt of a similar temperament. The childhoods of these women were vastly different from my own, but I had created a character so recognizable and familiar, they were able to relate to her. It’s this potential to recognize our shared humanity and common experience that fuels my hope.

Recently, I have been writing poems about women who have lost sons to war. I don’t have sons, nor did I have a brother, and my father never fought in a war, yet these new poems arise spontaneously from my sorrow and solidarity with all mothers whose sons have died or been murdered as a result of collective violence. I’m not Black and can’t speak for Black experience, but I come from a long line of persecuted ancestors in exile, many of whom, I can be assured, have endured the murder of their children. Advances in neuroscience and psychology today help us understand transgenerational trauma, and explain why I feel that some of this knowledge is in my bones.

Some of our greatest writers, too many to name, have written about the intersection of the personal and the collective. We have our personal history, our individual stories, and our country has its own story: mythology, history, and trauma. This is one of James Baldwin’s great themes. Despite being an expat for many years, he knew he was, in his heart, a citizen of this country, and he wanted us to recognize and respect his personal and collective pain as a gay Black man. Black and white America, he understood, were inextricably bound. He wished our nation would heal its racist history. The boy preacher in him never gave up on the power of love. In a passionate statement about our brotherhood, he wrote:

I am the flesh of your flesh and bone of your bone. I have been here as long as you have been here—longer—I paid for it as much as you have. It is my country, too. Do recognize that that is the whole question. My history and culture has got to be taught. It is yours.
—James Baldwin testifying before Congress, March 18, 1969

If we are to be citizens of a shared country, if we are to continue to live on a planet with other sentient beings, what moral values can we testify to with urgency and renewed vigor? I wish there was a public space in which each of you reading this Tiny Letter could contribute a list of those values you would most like to see our country embrace. (Short of that, you are welcome to send me your list via email reply.) Can we, by first going inward, cultivate a new and more honest intimacy with ourselves (our deepest stories) from which a transformative vision for the future will arise? This is essentially the shaman’s task—to bring back songs, images, symbols, instructions from beyond—to the tribe in need here and now.

I explore some of these themes in “Can Mindfulness Bring About Real Change?” my recent interview on Psychology Today with my longtime mentor and meditation pioneer, Sharon Salzberg. We can continue this discussion there. . . . or in your reading group, if you have one. I enjoy joining them (via Skype, Zoom, or phone) to discuss The Conditions of Love, and its universal themes, among them dreams, archetypes, resilience, mother/daughter relationships, etc. Do write to me if this interests you.

In the meantime, please stay safe and may moments of joy and wonder unlatch your minds from worry and woe.

Please stand by for more updates about my new novel and book of poems. Like most industries in the country, COVID has also affected the publishing industry.

Yours with care and in solidarity,


P.S. Those new to this newsletter may enjoy browsing previous dispatches in the Letter Archive. I expect to be joining a few virtual events in the fall. You can keep up with my activities on my Facebook page.

Top image: “Super Nurse” mural by street artist FAKE painted on a wall at the former NDSM shipyard in the Netherlands “as a tribute to all first responders and health care professionals all over the world.”  (@iamfake/Instagram)