Our team invited me to share some reflections on my personal evolution and transition “as an organizational elder”—prompted in part by the coming of the winter solstice, in part by my upcoming change to a part-time role after almost 20 years with this organization, by the unrelenting waves of instability, collapse, emergence, and uncertainty in the larger world, as well as the heartening, hopeful, and inspiring movements and experiments in co-creating a world rooted in love.¹
When I considered the immensity of possible stories, experiences, and ideas swimming in and around my being, a story immediately came to mind. Forty years ago—when my partner, Beth, and I were married less than a year—we became resident directors of a nature preserve and conference center on Long Island Sound: 60 acres of upland woods, beach, and salt marsh.
At night, Beth and I would drop everything and soundlessly slip our canoe into the cove next to our house, the watery home of bioluminescent jellyfish that would seasonally appear. It was best on still, moonless nights because when our canoe or a paddle touched one of these creatures, it would glow momentarily with a blue-green light, then disappear again. If we moved slowly enough among them, they would appear to stream off the end of our paddles in constellations of light, mixing indistinguishably with the reflections of the stars above.
I invite you to slip your canoe into this constellation of ideas, images, and reflections, noticing which provide light for you—or in you—as you float among them or brush them with your paddle, as you experience and consider your own moments of individual and collective transition.
Know Before You Go: The plate-tectonics of transition
Transitions are Bittersweet
“A tendency to states of longing, poignancy, and sorrow; An acute awareness of passing time; And a curiously piercing joy at the beauty of the world. The bittersweet is also about the recognition that light and dark, birth and death—bitter and sweet—are forever paired.”
– Susan Caine, Bittersweet: How Sorrow and Longing make us Whole
Transformational Transitions have a Subduction Zone
“Subduction Zone” is geologists’ term for “where tectonic plates collide and one plate is thrust beneath another, and where the most powerful earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and landslides [earth reshaping transformations] occur.”
– US Geological Survey
Fruitful Transitions Require Navigational Aids
Swimming below are stories, dreams, ceremonies, and spirit communications. Amidst all these are treasured navigational aids, which I rely on to cope with—and when lucky, thrive in—the sometimes gut-wrenching realm of bittersweet transitions.
Luminescence: El Camino dream, Norte pilgrimage route, mid-June, 2016
Six years ago, in June and July of 2016, Beth, my two sons, and their partners walked 500 miles of the Norte, Primitivo, and Frances Camino pilgrimage routes in northern Spain. We arrived, arm in arm, at the plaza of Santiago de Compostela on my 60th birthday after 35 days of walking. It was the most embodied and sustained period of reflection of my life.
I’m standing with walking poles, necessary navigational aids for this weeks-long walk, over a lava pool bubbling up through centuries-worn stone pavers at the edge of an ancient plaza. A voice comes: “Stir the subduction zone.”
I’d never even heard of a subduction zone, but could tell I was being called to stir-up something unbearably hot, sulfurous, ancient, submerged, and seemingly untouchable, and that if I did not, the very ground beneath me would be forever melting, burning, fluid.
I have spent the intervening years trying to do just that.
A Note for Those Who Would Change the World
“The success of an intervention depends on the interior condition of the intervenor.”
– Bill O’Brien
This registered in my head many years ago; I only heard it resound in my heart-mind much more recently, and only after much practice and lapses in practice.
Without persistent attention to this truth about the value of inner work, I cannot imagine facing the dismantling of ego and identity—and the disruption of individual and collective habits and patterns—necessitated by experiments in creating, right now, the liberated future we want to see; experiments in sharing power, resources, and decision-making, and journeying into multiple ways of knowing. As Maurice Mitchell points out in “Building Resilient Organizations: Toward Joy and Durable Power in a Time of Crisis,” inner work is required to be able to sit in the discomfort required for learning, growth, and change.
Navigational Aid: Coming home to true self, glimpsing interconnectedness, & dissolving binaries
I rely on sustained meditation practices at depth—including calm-abiding and mindfulness, to be sure—and beyond that, to myriad compassion practices for receiving and extending love, cultivating the heart, and transforming the suffering of oneself and others (put on your own mask before assisting others). I also rely on Internal Family Systems (IFS)/“Parts” work, which is the much younger, secular cousin of Dzogchen and Mahamudra Buddhism’s practices for befriending difficult arisings in order for them to unfold their wisdom and healing. (See here and here for compassion practice resources, and here for more on “Parts” work).
Among my navigational aids, these are the most fundamental for me.
Together, these two systems and disciplines may have saved my life and I’m certain have given my life back to me. They are reconnecting me to the innate wisdom and compassion at the core of my—and everyone’s—being. In doing so, I hope they are making me more reliably present to others and more comfortable with the inseparability and illusory nature of so many seemingly contradictory feelings and binary constructs: self/other; body/mind; inner/outer; attraction/aversion; good/bad; we/they; I/they; doing/being; joy/sorrow, etc., all amidst unending change.
How grateful and fortunate I feel to have received all this while still being able to benefit.
My Origin Story
My teammate, Alison Lin, opened up a staff meeting by inviting us into some storytelling: Tell your origin story, beginning with: You wouldn’t believe what happened…
I have come to know that I arrived in this body—this White², cis-man body—part of every other body and thing and no-thing that ever was and ever will be.
Like all new arrivals, I knew wholeness and light and space and play, porous beyond all center and edge.
Then the stories began, stories of aloneness, and also of heroism and pain, of who’s good/bad/in/out/worthy/unworthy/wise/foolish, and the stainless steel walls emerged from tender connected body.
My brain searched and searched for decades without ceasing, exhausting itself in over-controlled narratives, in disembodied theorizing, and fabrication.
The stainless walls becoming transparent but no more permeable.
My great, great-grandmother speaks to me under the earth: “I was not alone and you are not alone.”
My dead, too-hollow father, missing from the gene sequence, appears in his full human sorrow, truly met for the first time.
I give up the story, surrender the protective shield, expecting only loss, receiving only freedom.
The unfolding of my inner story seems to first lag behind and then accelerate amidst great external change. I find too that a story–mine, yours, or ours—lovingly heard, not only reflects but also transforms the internal and external landscape. What a wonder.
Navigational Aid: Reflection on purpose, self, & scale
Freedom. Equitable sharing of power and resources. Liberation. Alleviating suffering and the causes of suffering in myself and others. These are all terms that describe the intent of my life. However, reflecting on the arc of how I have pursued these purposes (and examining my motivations and satisfaction in doing so), unearthed some bittersweet contradictions.
- My field of engagement over the last 40+ years has been getting smaller and smaller—shifting from elaborate efforts to impact large, complex, messy problems at international and regional scales to individual leaders and small teams. I’ve spiraled down from broad entry points with a little depth, to narrower entry points with great depth. From flying country-to-country, city-to-city, addressing “big” issues, to sitting in as much presence as my own spaciousness on a given day allows—with one person or a few–closer and closer to home.
Other shifts happened along the way: in the early days, I was motivated by my entrained values, an empathetic heart, a love of exploring and learning, and by initially unexamined White shame, guilt, and saviorism. As those motivations and my awareness have changed and deepened, I’ve also recognized that doing what brings me joy is better for all involved! And I’m increasingly trusting that small-scale shifts can help set in motion vision and values-inspired ripples with outsized, unpredictable impact.
- Many things I thought would have the biggest impact proved to be overwhelmed by other large forces, and some things I saw as too small for significant impact have had heart and depth, and love at their center, and in the end, may be all that will save us.³
At every stage, I was convinced I was living faithfully to myself, my gifts, my values, and the needs of the world.⁴
But here’s the kicker: The self I was being faithful to was too often constructed of unhealed and unexamined interior parts, rather than my truer, more essential, still unfolding Self. Tricky and humbling business, this way-finding.
Navigational Aid: Stretching ways of knowing
I’m continually deepening my sense of how much more there is to know and of how many more rich and wonderful ways there are to know them. Ways of knowing that have been hidden, forgotten, and uncultivated in me and my ancestral people—White laborers from Scotland and England. And, I’m aware that I have fewer years ahead of me than behind in which to deepen in these ways of knowing, including:
- trusting ever more deeply my heart-mind and subtle-body energies to guide me
- accessing ancestral knowledge and connection
- learning from dreams and letting them unfold over the years as they meditate me in the background
- listening and learning, at heart-level, from people whose cultures have never forgotten all of the above
I am forever grateful to Change Elemental colleagues who have shown me in their living how utterly natural it is to communicate with nature, with ancestors, and our own inner wisdom, and how necessary this has been in informing my part of co-creating a future rooted in love, joy, and liberation. I’m particularly grateful to Elissa Sloan Perry, who saw, trusted in, and called forth my essential nature well before I did.
Ceremony: Marking the moment, together
“Ceremony is the poetry that languages a new way of being and ways of doing such that the apocalypse can utter its death rattle, be composted, and make way for the regenerative growth of the post-apocalyptic, indigenized, recombinant world in which all of creation can face one another, bow, and begin the dance anew.”
– Aja Couchois Duncan, “Ceremony: Reyoking the Sacred with Our Social Justice Work”
In October 2022, at The Penn Center, St. Helena Island, South Carolina, Change Elemental held its first-in-almost-three-years in-person staff retreat.
Prompted by Elissa Sloan Perry’s and my impending role transitions out of formal day-to-day management, we created an extraordinary Marking the Moment ceremony. Staff divided into five groups, one each for the elements of Earth, Fire, Metal, Water, and Air to collectively express some essential aspects of these role transitions.
I’m so grateful to my infinitely creative colleagues (and that infinitely contradictory place) for the gift of this ceremony and for holding such a bittersweet transition time with grace, courage, compassion, and love.
How beautiful to experience constellations of luminescence, dancing together, illuminating the sacred darkness.
Fall in Boston. Earth’s northern pole imperceptibly, relentlessly tilting away (again) from the light, nature’s circles, calendars’ illusory lines, endings, and beginnings without center or edge. I put on another layer.
A group shares a picture of trees dropping leaves, going dormant, in deep, enlivening partnership with earth; mulching the ground, composting nutrients into next spring’s soil, protecting seeds, housing animals: surrender and growth, death and beauty, entwined.
This profoundly beautiful transitional solstice season, and its invitation to rest, hibernate, and to do the invisible heart work of preparation for new life. A time of replenishing collective ceremony, spiritual or otherwise. A “solstice of hearts turning toward the light”⁵…
…alongside compressed deadlines of the holiday rush…
…and the calling up of difficult personal failings…
…and the loss of people and of dreams on which time is running out.
Thank you, Earth.
Navigational Aid: Building fractals of beloved community
I’m blessed beyond words to live in the joy and hope of building fractals of beloved community at Change Elemental, with our clients and partners, in Buddhist and Christian spiritual communities of which I am part, and in other communities of practice.
Living in these love-based communities of longing for be-longing, for a world of love, dignity, justice, and human/planetary healing that we hope to see—such hope, courage, strength, and joy flows.
Practicing liberation daily, succeeding and failing daily, and practicing again—grounded in love, connection, abundance, co-creation, unlearning the default to aloneness, hierarchy, scarcity, expertness—and fractals of the world we want to see can’t help but come face-to-face with what still is.
….Love and sorrow flow mingled down…
– Isaac Watts, “Hymn”, 1707
“As humans, we have just enough suffering to be spurred to liberation, and just enough joy that we can taste what liberation is like.”
– Lama Liz Monson, 2022
A pair draws a Phoenix, lights a candle, and it burns to ashes on the ground.
Who or what is rising…in you, in us? We’re not seeking an answer, we’re simply exploring.
A great turning worldwide with institutions and ecosystems in turmoil and collapse and, as Norma Wong recently pointed out, the even more troubling collapse of our basic humanity, occurring simultaneously with a grueling, unrelenting, exhausting pandemic where now many of us have been pulled back into travel and the many gifts of in-person gatherings, alongside the toll that travel and the virus takes on us and our families and the unparalleled, fleeting opportunity this all provides for liberation and for building anew.
Thank you, Fire.
Navigational Aid: Ancestors
In Erin Sweeney’s remarkable online class, Ancestral Story Telling, ten White folks, including me, were reintroduced to some of what has been lost from our people’s heritage—reconnecting (often in skillfully guided imagery meditations) with ancestors and ancestral wisdom. The idea powerfully presented in Resmaa Menakim’s, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, is that until we do so, we will never heal the intergenerational wounds that allowed White people to so readily enslave, colonize, and dehumanize people in the lands to which we fled our own persecution, structural poverty, and violence.
I’m slowly learning from the inside out now, to attend to bittersweet contradictions that arise in communication with ancestors and descendants, and to let in the healing and transformation available there.
Luminescence: Spirit communication from my great-grandmother
“I was not alone and you are not alone.”
– Isabell Dalzeel (1854-1912)
She spoke this to me on June 19, 2022, from within an earthen room roofed by the massive roots of a still-standing tree, and under the fields and stone walls my forebears labored on as tenant farmers for four generations in Sanquhar, Scotland.
It took this communication (amidst many other kinds of inner work over decades), across three generations to finally open my heart to the lived emotional reality of aloneness and great traumatic losses my father experienced as a very young man, which he passed on to me.
I refused to see my deceased father’s painful, isolated emotional reality for over six decades.
When I gave up—finally and almost in an instant, at the end of an offering practice on a silent retreat—my self-protection against my own inheritance of aloneness, everything changed, kaleidoscopically, irrevocably, bodily. I loved and forgave him. I loved and forgave myself.
This learning, which is as much about navigating transitions as it is about the toxic, inherited belief in aloneness, is now in my bones.
Surrender is not loss, it is freedom.
Candle lit on the ground, wind and heat turn it from perfect cylinder to beautiful tracery in the gravel.
Old forms of organizational and movement leadership, melting away, recast, and fed by hope-inducing experiments in power-sharing and co-leadership.
What a challenge to the individual patterns and collective habits of us shapeshifters. Whatever can be “next,” when one is truly present?⁶
Thank you, Metal.
Navigational Aid: Imagery & symbols
I’m not a fine artist, but I have a vivid visual imagination that makes inner work such as guided imagery, Jungian active imagination, and Internal Family Systems parts work (and external work with groups using drawings, symbols, and pictures), easy for me. I often discover what I’m thinking, feeling, or catch a glimpse of the future I’m living into by beginning a drawing with one or two anchor ideas/symbols and adding what feels called into drawing, until something settles, and it feels “done.” Some of my most enduring dreams are like my drawings…but they move.
Luminescence: El Camino pilgrimage dream, Francés route, July 2016
The dream: I’m in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Huge, luminous, impossibly large echoes of the shells we’ve been following for 500 miles appear on the floor and on the inside of slowly opening massive doors. There are shells visible in the distance outside too, unmistakably, outside. Seems we’re not done.
Awake: Strangely comforted that it is not over. It’s never over. The end that’s the beginning. Circles, in what looked like lines.
How can I be separate when I feel utterly at home at the water’s edge?
A crumpled blue paper river sits on the ground, flowing its crinkly way between two fist size rocks. Two loving hands of a colleague raise the rocks and set them gently to either side, downstream, to the river’s edge, creating space and new edges for water to find its new flow.
My own transition and my wife’s retirement make room for new leadership, while also feeling we’ve never had more to offer—and more skillfully—than we do now.
Disengaging from shared ritual space and community created room for flowing tears, and for admitting grief in proportion to our love.
Thank you, Water.
Luminescence: Spirit communication from my unborn granddaughter when she’s old
In inches of fallen larch needles, Iona (somehow I knew her name), and I sat under the big tree off the corner of my grandmother’s porch where I built pretend roads and villages for hours as a little boy. She was 70, although my expected granddaughter is due in early March 2023.
My heart soared to know that she was still alive…that she survived (what?)
She says, apparently knowing I’m in lifelong recovery from feeling responsible for everything: It’s not all up to you.
Then: What are you going to do for me while you still can?
(I later relay to her mother these two contradictory messages, who smiles, laughs knowingly, and says “That bitch! You go!”)
Iona seemed to have been alone quite some time…but on the other side of… It haunts me.
Living in a fleeting in-between time.
More and more occasions now to feel pain, loss, and emptiness as family and friends become limited, fall ill, or die. So sad and so sweet! The joy of adaptation, the welcome release from suffering, and the chance to bask in the gift of all these lives and of countless ancestors.
More and more births and grandchildren, coming into the world in a hooray of happiness and future hope…inescapably take in and carry the wounds and gifts of their forebears, making these all their own. And with grace and accompaniment, healing.
My colleague Natalie Bamdad and I are the “Air” group for this ritual. We discuss a few ideas related to breath practices, but none were satisfying. An inspired look lights her face and she proclaims, “Songs are air!” and sings to me a song from the Havdalah ceremony at the end of Shabbat.
I later learned the Havdalah is a “bittersweet ceremony” in which participants “say goodbye” to the day of rest, “in the hope that the sweetness and holiness of the day will remain with us during the week.”
I don’t know the meanings of the words, but I can feel the ancient joy and longing in the Hebrew song.
We return to our circle, Natalie sings, and we join in.
I weep; feeling fully seen in my happiness and loss.
Thank you, Air.
One time merging with another…what new song is arising on our breath?
Thank you for paddling through this with me. I’m hopeful something luminous may have caught your eye, too.
- As a recovering escapee from academia (the exemplar and bastion of White dominant culture–and of footnotes!) I was tempted to organize my experience and reflections on transitions such as these into a well-structured exposition with a clear outline and logical flow, theoretically grounded and sound, and structured around a few pithy, easily summarized nuggets. But these experiences and reflections simply refused to be wrangled and tamed in this way. (My son David, a poet and jazz musician saved me from myself by wisely observing, ”Your experiences can best be shared in the structure of the writing…just floating through them is enough.”)
- I capitalize White throughout because, as Eve Ewing explains here: “When we ignore the specificity and significance of Whiteness—the things that it is, the things that it does—we contribute to its seeming neutrality and thereby grant it power to maintain its invisibility.”
- adrienne marie brown’s poem, “if you can’t see the small…” sings powerfully to this reality.
- Paraphrasing Parker Palmer’s “standard” for a life well-lived in, On the Brink of Everything, 2018, p.48
- Reverend Rick Spalding, Dec 2022
- From a meditation teaching by Camille Hykes, 2022.