Last Sunday, I saw this video. I haven't stopped thinking about it since.
A few weeks ago, I started writing a blog that I couldn't finish. I knew what I wanted to say, but I kept tripping over the shoelaces of my own confusion, falling into the fissures of old fears. I got hung up in my story, trying to say it "right", being politically correct, and mostly of being afraid of the response. I still am. This is still a blog that, frankly, I’m a little scared to write. But I am summoning the courage to continue the conversation begun in this video.
No more labels. Only Love.
I've been spending a lot of time thinking about what matters in the world and what I can do to help our planet heal. Here I am, in a place of such natural beauty, with two months to myself to think, feel, process, read, write, understand and be. Every day I am filled with gratitude for this gift of time. But up here alone in the mountains on this vision quest, I can feel what is happening in the world on an almost visceral level that forms a gut-wrenching, heart-breaking backdrop to this quiet time of contemplation. The contradiction between the serenity of my surroundings and the firestorm in the world is hard to hold sometimes. I want to DO something -- and the younger activist me would have. But this older prayerful me knows that I must stay my course and listen for what I am being called to do to be a part of the healing.
What came to me on my Monday morning hike was this: If we really want to be the change we wish to see in the world, each of us has to risk being as honest as we can bear to be. Risk being vulnerable about our confusions, frank about our fears, humble in our I don't knows. Each of us, I believe, is here to have our own conversation with, about, through, as everything that sings our hearts and stirs our souls, breaks our spirits and connects us to one another and the world. But to do that, we have to risk being seen as the imperfect beings we all are, and stop trying to package ourselves so that we fit into boxes that we hope will make us feel safe. If we are learning anything from all the divisive rhetoric that keeps ratcheting up, I hope it is that all the arguments about which words -- black/white/police/LGBTQ/all lives matter -- are allowable to be spoken where and by whom, those arguments don't begin to touch the lived experience of an America in which we still think of ourselves as Us and Them. Us and Them is the whole problem -- no matter who the Us and what the Them.
Once again it comes down to No more labels. Only Love.
Last Sunday, I went birding with a new friend. Birding has become one of my go-to joy practices. I love spending my mornings with the birds, who are my constant joy companions wherever I am in the world. I mostly bird alone, so it was a rare delight to share the quiet excitement of seeing a bright blue Bunting or a tiny Phoebe with a kindred birding spirit. To question aloud with another human being instead of just consulting my iPhone. To see with four eyes instead of two.
At one point, after sighting a few Indigo Buntings, as well as a number of smaller equally bright blue birds, I put voice to something I had been wondering about for weeks now: "I know the bigger blue birds are the Indigo Buntings, but when I look in the books for the smaller bright blue ones, I can't find them." As I said it, I felt that, you know, old junior high feeling that there was something I "should" know, but didn't. So I felt a kind of junior high school relief when my friend didn't know either. So we speculated together as to whether they were immature birds, new nestlings just learning to fly and sing. We ended up being very comfortable in our not knowing -- though she vowed to go home and do some research.
It was then that she said this: "I once read that if the bird you see doesn't match the picture or the description of the bird in the books, the bird is always right."
I looked at her and a huge grin broke out on my face mirrored back by an equally big one on hers. Of course! How sweet and how true! What a perfect metaphor for, well, everything. . .
THE BIRD IS ALWAYS RIGHT!!
In fact, it's become part of my new mantra: The bird is always right. No labels. Only love.
So, I think I'm ready to risk writing this blog now -- to be as honest as I can bear to be in the hopes that I can have the courage to begin the conversation I now understand I am here to have. To contribute something to the global dialogue in which we are all participating, hoping to heal the age-old rifts of Us and Them that have bubbled up into the horrific violence that is erupting all around us.
Last Friday over dinner, I found myself sharing some of my questioning with my beautiful irreverent reverend friend Brigid. I heard these words come out of my mouth: "My whole life I feel like I have been asked to choose an identity, to check some box that was supposed to represent me. But there have never been any boxes that seemed to match how I see myself, so I just picked the closest thing I could find. But it's never felt right. None of the boxes, none of the labels, none of the initials or titles, none of it has ever felt like me."
She laughed, admitting that she has felt the same way. It felt like such a relief to say it and have it be heard, to not be thought crazy.
After the massacre in Orlando, I read an amazing speech by the lieutenant governor of Utah. In deep honesty, he talked about all the ways his heart had changed in his views about the LGBTQ community. In one of the most moving moments of his speech, he asks the questions we should all be asking: “Can we be brave? Can we be strong? Can we be kind and, perhaps, even happy, in the face of atrocious acts of hate and terrorism? Do we find a way to unite? Or do these atrocities further corrode and divide our torn nation?” (To read the whole speech, please click on the link below.)
But there was another moment in his speech that was particularly sweet, in which he talked about how getting to know LGBTQ people began to open his heart: “Over the intervening years, my heart has changed. It has changed because of you. It has changed because I have gotten to know many of you. You have been patient with me. You helped me learn the right letters of the alphabet in the right order even though you keep adding new ones. You have been kind to me. . . . even told me I dressed nice once, even though I know [you were] lying. You have treated me with the kindness, dignity, and respect — the love — that I very often did NOT deserve. And it has made me love you.”
His sweetly humorous vulnerability touched me deeply. Shortly after reading that, I was on the phone with my BFF, telling her about the speech, when I heard myself saying, “You know, I don't think they've found MY letter of the alphabet yet. Maybe they'll just keep adding more and more letters until it's the WHOLE alphabet." To which she replied, "And then we'll just have invent a new alphabet."
I loved that!! It's a little like those childhood games where you keep adding words and ideas together to create a nonsensical sentence that ends up making all the sense in the world: A new alphabet in which the bird is always right and there are no labels. Only Love.
When I was growing up, my closest friends were African-American, Korean-American, Palestinian-American, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu. My core group and I called ourselves, with great pride, the Mini United Nations. As the token blond WASP, I always felt like the least interesting person. Sometimes I felt as though my skin had betrayed me -- making me look so much more mundane and mainstream than the kooky weirdo I knew myself to be inside.
That all changed during my freshman year of college when, at the elite ivied almost all white East Coast school I attended, there was a cross burning that shocked the campus. It prompted a one-day closure of all classes so that everyone could meet to discuss institutionalized and individual racism. We broke out into small groups led by faculty members, and each group had at least one or two African-American students in it. In that group something happened that changed my life. And to this day, I am not sure if it was for the better or for the worse.
One of the African-American students began to talk about all the compromises she felt she had had to make to get into this elite almost all white institution. The ways in which she had had to eradicate some of her blackness, assimilate herself into the white culture, be someone she never truly could be. To live white in black skin.
Her words hit me like a bullet in the gut. I realized that, prior to that day, I had been color blind. Which I had thought was good. Of course, I could see that my friends looked different than me, but weren’t we all One? But that day, what I saw for the first time was that my One was the one of the dominant culture seen from the place of my white wealthy privilege.
In my remaining years at college, I went on to become close friends with many of the African-American students, because my focus of study was African Art. In my heart, I felt so at home with people who I knew felt as different and other as I did. But every time I looked at them, I felt so confused. We both felt different, but was to unify our differences just another form of racism? For the first time, I saw color where I hadn’t before, and it bothered me that I did. But not to see it was not to acknowledge a part of their truth I had never understood before. Something didn’t make sense: Where did Us/Them and One intersect?
A few years later, when I began to explore my sexual orientation, this came home in a new and equally discomforting way. At a time of great social and political conservatism, when the political leaders in this country were turning a blind eye to AIDS, which was ravaging the gay community, I felt politically motivated, more than anything, to “identify”. Not to do so was not to stand in solidarity with the people I loved who were dying. So I picked L. (There were fewer initials then.) But the problem was that I never felt L. Just as I have never felt like the Caucasian box I am forced to choose in the census. Caucasian? How does some remote part of Russia have anything to do with me? It has all always felt so arbitrary . . . and utterly confusing.
Lately, the world has opened itself up to a lot more conversation about this, largely through the awareness brought about by transgender people, who have had the courage to stand up and tell their stories. Slowly but surely, the world has begun to accept that people are born into a body that they do not feel fits their being.
What their courage not just in speaking, but in enduring unimaginable pain to live their truths, has helped me realize, is that more of us live somewhere on that spectrum than anyone is saying. Perhaps we all do.
Even as a kid, my mother never knew what to make of me. Sometimes I would come down to breakfast wearing an outfit she thought so misguided -- oh, let’s say, a Japanese kimono with a cowboy hat and leg warmers over my pastel-colored school uniform -- and her whole face would blanch. "What kind of a statement are you trying to make with that?" she would ask, horrified.
I always felt like I had to give her an answer -- but my answers really never made any sense, because what I wanted to say was simply this -- This is the me I felt like being today. Instead I blathered on trying to make connections that didn't exist between Japan and modern dance and horses, in an attempt to speak what I hoped was her language. At some point, when she had heard enough, she always trotted out her old adage, "Well, unless you're going to have a t-shirt printed explaining all of that — and what you just said is going to take up the whole front and back — no one is going to know what you mean. You don't want to go through life having to explain yourself to everyone, do you?"
Well, no. I didn't. I didn't see why I had to, really. So what if I was a kimono-cowboy-hat-leg-warmer-wearing tall white girl who didn't really want to be white at all. What did that matter? But apparently it did to my mother -- and a lot of people like her. As a consequence, I have spent far too much of my life trying to fit into the box I never felt that I checked on a census whose import was lost on me, choosing a major that covered only a minor amount of my interests, attempting to get comfortable being an initial that never matched my heart, and reducing the weird array of me to a clever t-shirt slogan that everyone could "get".
Guess what? It hasn't worked.
I am a people-loving hermit. I am a two-no-multi-spirited romantic monk. I am a WASP by genealogy, but feel like the United Nations inside. I am a tomboy who loves fuchsia and hikes in skirts. I talk to dogs. And birds. And flowers and trees for that matter. I am most at home in a meadow on a mountain, but my head lives inside its own vast library. I think some of the most beautiful and intimate connections of my life have come with total strangers or on the back of a horse. I am spiritual not religious, but I deeply connect with rituals from faiths I never want to practice. I'm 5'11" and I wear a size small, but I always reach for the XL on the shelves. I always will. And if I had to choose God or people, I would choose God without hesitation. Which IS, of course, EXACTLY what I am choosing when I am choosing people or animals or birds or plants or flowers. What's the label for that?
On that same birding hike last Sunday, a woman with an Australian Shepherd came toward us on the trail. I had two Aussies when I was in my thirties whom I adored. As a result, I speak Aussie. Fluently, and with great joy. So, I stopped to talk to her dog. Charlie. Charlie looked up at his owner for permission and then came over to chat. After we had shared a few words, I told Charlie's person about my two Aussies.
"Oh," she said quietly, tears welling up in her eyes. "Then you know."
I just nodded. We nodded. And then smiled.
She gathered herself. "Charlie is my emotional therapy dog," she said. "I don't know how I would have survived without him."
We looked at one another deeply. And then we just smiled.
Then my birding friend and I simultaneously put our hands on our hearts, as did Charlie's mom. We all bowed and said Namaste.
Namaste. I see the divine in you. You see the divine in me.
Turned out we all spoke Aussie, which is just another dialect of Love.
I used to think I was a weirdo. That I would never meet anyone else who fit my peculiar "demographic". I used that thought against myself -- as an excuse for all the ways I would always be an outsider. But the longer I am alive, the more I think every single person on the planet feels just like me -- just in their own uniquely unlabelable-whole-alphabet-I-had-to-pick-something-but-this-box-doesn’t-even-come-close kind of way.
And that's why I loved that video so darn much. No Labels. Only Love.
That Sunday morning, wondering why I couldn't find the little blue birds I saw in the field in any of my books, feeling confused, even wrong, the revelation that OF COURSE the bird is always right set me free. Suddenly it seemed so obvious — actually so wonderfully funny — to think that any of us humans could presume to know, to even want to label, the beauty of those little blue birds. Who cared what they were called?!? All I wanted to do was to enjoy them -- to listen to their sweet trilling songs, watch them flit across the fields, see the sun glint blue off their feathers. I wanted to be with them and love them -- be they buntings or bluebirds or something else all together. No Labels. Only Love.
If it's hard for us to do with birds -- to resist the taxonomies that we use to wrangle the wild into submission -- no wonder we can't do it with ourselves. Let alone one another.
But under every color of skin, every uniform, every political affiliation, every sexual orientation or gender identification, every nationality, religion or ethnicity, every size body, every ability or seeming disability, I believe there is an individual at least part of whom has never felt like there was a box to check, an initial to choose, a profession to pick, a lifestyle to live that fully fit who they felt themselves to be. All of us -- and I do believe that in one way or another this is true of all of us -- have wondered at one time or another in our lives why the descriptions in the book didn't match the plumage that we feel.
The solution to those fears is not to squeeze ourselves inside the box. The answer to our dilemma is not to pick a letter of the alphabet and try to live it with as little misery as possible. And the healing of the world is never going to be creating more labels that reduce everything to more meaningless iterations of Us and Them.
The truth is much simpler, but it ain't easy to live. Still we have to try. We have to keep adding letters to the alphabet until every letter is there -- and if that still doesn't cover it, we have to add some more until we realize that no alphabet is even needed. We need to resist the need to comfort ourselves with labels, and instead choose Love. Because when we choose Love, we know that all we want is to be in its presence, no matter its color or gender or religion or sexual orientation.
When we choose Love, we live Love.
When we choose Love, Us and Them just dissolves into One.
When we choose Love, the bird IS always right.
(Distorted Photos: Taken at the mindblowingly awesome Anish Kapoor retrospective in Berlin, Germany, with my wonderful friend of 35 years, Celia Solf. November 2013.)