“Ring the bells that still can ring
forget your perfect offering.
There’s a crack in everything,
that’s how the light gets in.”
Having known the radical disconnection of the profound clinical depression that visited me in mid-life, I’m grateful for the knowledge that we connect most powerfully in our brokenness.
What are you working on right now?
As always, I’m working on myself! At age 82, I’m trying to keep “beginner’s mind” alive. That’s the most fruitful way I know to approach the many mysteries of self and world, including the mystery of death.
When people ask me why I became a writer, I say, “Because I was born baffled!” Writing, for me, is a way to peel back one layer of mystery until I get to the next one. I have yet to get to the last layer, but I figure it’s on its way! Bafflement can be vexing, but it helps keep me alive by allowing me to live in the spirit of Gandhi, who titled his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. I can’t imagine how boring it would be to live a life of certainty. Boring and dangerous to self and world.
Part of what keeps my curiosity alive is partnering with young activists around the world who help me understand what’s coming across a horizon that I can no longer see as clearly as they can. I guess they are the adult equivalents of those Jr. High kids from Spanish Harlem. I’m doing a lot of online sessions with people who’ve worked at social change long enough to know they need to do inner as well as outer work—partly to aim their efforts well, and partly to remain resilient. I’m grateful to have some things to offer them, but I learn more from them than they learn from me.
Intergenerational connections are so critical to life well-lived at every age. The young and the old alike should be doing a lot more to encourage and facilitate them.
What values guide your work?
From my mid-twenties onward, I’ve tried to understand the imperatives of my own heart and soul, and find work that allows me to act on those imperatives—work that allows me to put whatever gifts I have in service of others. So I’ve served as a teacher, a community organizer, a leader of a Quaker living-learning community of some eighty people that practiced radical economic equality, the founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal, and an “independent” writer, teacher, and activist.
I don’t much like that word “independent,” even though I’ve been self-employed most of my adult life. No one is “independent”—we’re all “interdependent.” One of the many American illusions is “I’ve achieved all this myself.” But, no. Everything requires a village. At my age, people ask me to me talk about “my legacy.” It’s not “mine,” it’s “ours.” Where would a writer be if he or she didn’t have readers who take their ideas, mix them their own, and evolve ways of thinking and acting that are life-giving for themselves and others? That’s about “us,” not “me.”
With any given decision, I ask myself, which choice would be, on balance, more life-giving than death-dealing for me and others? What do I want to give myself to for the sake of new life? I could talk about my values in terms of love, truth, and justice, all of which are aspirations for me. But my operational norm is to do whatever will be life-giving for all concerned. The question “Who am I?” should always be accompanied by “Whose am I?” As Marge Piercy says in her poem, “Low Road,” speaking of social change: “…it starts when you say We / and know who you mean, and each / day you mean one more.”
How has the experience of the last year affected you and your work?
For years I’ve written about “the divided life,” and how we start choosing to live “divided no more” when we experience “the pain of disconnection” that comes from the deep divides within us and between us. The pandemic has plunged me into the pain that comes from the collapse of community. If anyone ever doubted the importance of face-to-face interactions in everything from maintaining mental health to doing meaningful work, I hope this deadly experience has opened their eyes, minds, and hearts.
At the same time, the pandemic has given me a new sense of unity with others—life is full of paradoxes! Early in the pandemic, I realized that my age and underlying health put me in the “high-risk” category. For a minute or two, that fact frightened me. But I soon began feeling a closer sense of connection with people around the planet who live high-risk lives nonstop because of race, religion, economic conditions, gender identity or sexual orientation, etc.. For people who live in pandemics of oppression, there is no “waiting for the vaccine,” as has been the case with my “high risk” status.
I hope never to lose the deepened sense of connection the pandemic gave me with my brothers and sisters whose risk is unending.
What’s giving you joy right now? What are you hopeful about?
I find joy and hope almost every day in the natural world, which is continually renewing itself against all odds, and in the lives of the young, who are or soon will be helping to shape a new world.
In nature and in the succession of the generations, we see what Howard Thurman (MLK Jr.’s closest spiritual guide) called “the growing edge,” which he saw as “the basis of hope in moments of despair, the incentive to carry on when times are out of joint and men have lost their reason, the source of confidence when worlds crash and dreams whiten into ash.” That’s why Thurman always said, “Look well to the growing edge!”
For me, hope is more than an attitude. It’s an action. My personal definition is simple: Hope is holding a creative tension between what is and what could and should be, each day doing something to narrow the distance between the two. Figuring out what that “something” might be requires creativity, which is, in itself, another source of hope and joy for me.