Jana Richman One Woman's Meat: Notes from Escalante

Caring for the Near and Dear

Written by Jana Richman on . Posted in Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument, Escalante, Utah, Peace, The Mind, The Place

In the last week, as in every week before it, a multitude of calls for attention, compassion, caring, money, and/or time devoted to issues, injustices, and actions found their way into my life. Most of them came by email, some by facebook, some by phone, some in person. I counted thirteen not including those that I indirectly summoned by reading the newspaper. Often they are prompted by something I’ve said or written. Issues begat issues. Feminism, environmentalism, poverty, racism, sexism, ageism, violence, healthcare, education, animal cruelty—every possible topic brings with it a flood of legitimate concerns, a long list of related injustices, and usually numerous unconscionable acts committed by those with power.

To put it bluntly, I’m overwhelmed by the competition for caring.

The problem is twofold. One, the opportunities for moral outrage are plentiful, multifaceted, and urgent—many worthy of compassion, energy, and time. Two, I’m vulnerable to gravitational pulls and better at soaking up messes than Bounty paper towels. As my father used to say when I’d crumble under his directed anger, “You’re too damn sensitive!”

About eight years ago, sitting alone in a Tucson apartment overlooking Time Market on University Avenue, I had either an epiphany or a breakdown. Maybe both. It was a time of loss—the end of a marriage, the loss of a home, the departure of friends, a change of jobs—and for the prior few months I had spent an enormous amount of time wallowing in fear and self pity. On that particular spring afternoon, I experienced a palpable feeling of things being settled—for better or worse. In that moment, I realized I had to find my way to a life of peace, although, having never before experienced such a thing, I had no idea what it might look like or how I might attain it.

I have a CD of Bikram Choudhury leading a yoga class, and at a certain point of instructing a student on a posture, Bikram says, “What are you waiting for? Somebody going to help you?” Although I didn’t hear this CD until years after that Tucson moment, I somehow heard those words that day.

What I learned in the eight years since is that peace is not attainable. It’s not something one acquires and keeps forever more. It’s a practice—much like yoga. Some days a yoga practice flows smoothly, and one feels the beauty and fullness of the human body in movement. Other days, every posture feels like a battle of will between body and mind. The practice of peace is much the same. But peace is not a monthly, weekly, or daily practice; it’s a moment-to-moment practice. And both practices—peace and yoga—require an act of letting go.

Five months ago, as I began this blog, I came late to the party of facebook. I had avoided it for years in an attempt to restrict exposure to my aforementioned susceptibility to being yanked off course with little enticement. But I had gone too far, pulled the restraints too tightly around myself, and isolated myself. So I joined facebook, the modern way of connecting with the world. Yet, I don’t feel connected. In fact, the opposite. After spending twenty minutes on facebook, I’m frazzled. It’s not the everyday banal posts that trouble me. In fact, there’s something I find almost soothing about the photo of dressed-up deviled eggs with eyes of black olive bits and noses of carrot snips posted by my once-removed sister-in-law. It means someone has found a way to care about this small source of delight in a world of beleaguering madness. What I’m having trouble facing in facebook are the posts that shout, “here’s something you should care about, something you should be outraged by, something you should get involved in, something you should share with others, something you should not remain silent about. Look! Care! Do something! At the very least, show you have a conscience by “liking” the post.”

The irony that I make such posts myself is not lost on me. I find these posts—and emails—useful and informative, even laudable, which is precisely the problem. I do care. But I’m struggling with the practice of peace amid the injustice, violence, outrage, hatred, chaos, manipulation, and absurdity circulating through my world. Is it possible to live with both peace and passion? Is it possible to fill a life with beauty when I’m daily notified that the very places bringing beauty into my life are being destroyed in front of me? Can I continue to carry love inside of me while being assaulted with the death of it around me? In short, is my capacity for caring vast enough to contain the magnitude of the demand?

Part of my care fatigue is caused, I believe, by what I perceive as the lost art of argument. The comments on facebook and elsewhere reflect an atmosphere where we are quick to take a stand, quick to take offense, quick to make assumptions, quick to draw conclusions, quick to employ ad hominem fallacies, and as self-righteous as humans can possibly be. Although we could easily rename the ad hominem fallacy after Rush Limbaugh who has reprehensibly perfected the service of it, I don’t find these unfortunate traits to be the private property of either the right or the left. Many—me included—were outraged by George W. Bush’s insistence upon setting up a false delimma—you’re either with us or against us—but it seems we’ve since adopted such a battle cry on almost every issue. We don’t have discussions; we have stand-offs.

Another part of my care fatigue comes from the fact that I’m slow to arrive at certainty. I like to sit with issues, ponder them, think about them, toy with them, discuss them with people who don’t think the same way I think, and let my thoughts develop and evolve unhurriedly, but that sort of approach can only be done one small issue at a time. Perhaps that’s why it is out of favor—we’re operating in crisis mode. One must adopt a position immediately. I envy those who seem clear and certain about the answers because deep in my heart, on many issues, I believe we have arrived at a place without answers.

This niggling feeling that the answers are not there, that we have extended past the tipping point, I believe, resides at an unconscious level in many of us, the fear of which adds to the vitriol of the discussion and may deter the process of finding creative alternatives. Some are of the position that I have no right to argue or point out a problem unless I can also propose a solution to the problem. It’s the “if you don’t have an alternative solution you have no right to argue against mine” defense. Whenever someone intimates that I should shut up if I can’t propose a solution, my inner skeptic flares. It is this stance that leaves us with overly simplistic answers to complex problems and solutions with unintended consequences. We, of course, have every right to argue against the means without having a solution for the end. Isn’t that what public discourse is supposed to be about, the discussion of ideas and issues before arriving at a conclusion rather than the stomping around insistence of right solutions? At times wrong action is obvious. Right action may not be quite so apparent, but that does not negate one’s right to comment on the wrong action. Fracking, for example, seems to me to be an act that is utterly deplorable and destructive, an act that can in no way be justified, and an act that should be stopped immediately. Yet I have no answers for the nation’s dependence on energy. My gut instinct is that we must—and will when we have to—become less dependent on energy, but there is no simple, clear, easy process and the answers remain fuzzy. So be it. A state of uncertainty is not the worst thing; certainty can be far more dangerous.

We also seem ready to ignore the nuances of any given issue, as if recognition of such might give our opponents an opening. I find myself grossly over-generalized, placed into camps based on a particular point of view I’ve expressed in the past, as if my opinions can then be extrapolated to every related issue. It causes me discomfort. Every issue is unique; every argument is nuanced. In addition to being slow to arrive at certainty, I’m also hesitant, once I’m there, to gather every related topic into the circle and proclaim confidence on all of them.

To approach issues thoughtfully within the life of peace to which I am committed means that I cannot be tugged by gravitational pulls but must instead be narrowly selective. The activists I most admire are those who devote their energy, passion, and sometimes their entire lives to a single cause, recognizing, of course, that every single issue is interconnected with every other. Those focused in their approach—Jane Goodall comes to mind—also find in their work, I believe, joy residing alongside sadness and beauty residing alongside ugliness. When the fist-pounders come calling with related issues, the person singularly focused has guts enough to say, “I care, but my focus is here.” Unless we are invested in thinking “you’re either with me or against me,” that answer is more than acceptable.

The truth is I have to let go of more than I grab onto. I have to spend fewer hours of my life being morally outraged and more hours of my life at peace. I believe this is a worthwhile pursuit. I believe that peace spreads from one person to another, that if more people were committed to the practice of individual peace, we may find a way to approach the enormous problems that we face with less fury, less noise, and less need to convince others of our rightness.

Where peace and passion unite: Calf Creek Falls, Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument

I have decided to grab onto the most near and dear, to expend what energy I have within a close circle because caring in a small, non-technological way makes sense to me. It feels real; it feels manageable. In my mind, small cells of caring dotted across the earth can’t help but bind into connective tissue that then supports the growth of healthy organs. My focus is the community of Escalante, Utah, and the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, a place that allows a perfect union of peace and passion.

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Comments (14)

  • Ed Meyer

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    Wonderful introspective. As you know, I’m a city councilman. I want so very badly to make my community a kinder place. My mind swirls with ideas and solutions to the point where I increasingly find myself unhappy because I’m unable to solve all the problems of my little town, let alone the world. Part of my problem is focus; impacting my little world in one tiny way rather than in every way. Part of my problem is ego; thinking that I’m the only one with solutions. Part of my problem is priority; placing my God complex ahead of my peace and that of my loved one. I hope this all will pass; I also also know the world is filled with windmills.

    Reply

    • Jana

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      Thanks, Ed. I think you do make your community a kinder place.

      Reply

  • Janice Gilbertson

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    Dear Jana,
    With each of your posts that I read, I become more and more sure that we must have some deep (so deep I’ve no idea what it could be) connection. You write what I feel. Ah, but then I read “replies” and find there are other readers who think the same. Well, darn.
    My soft heart already aches for a multitude of life’s problems and uncertainties. If someone asks me to add another, I feel one foot slip toward that mire of depression. Sleepless nights of worry about hungry children and abused animals are on the verge of sucking me under as it is! Please, I can’t take it anymore!
    And that is one reason (only one of too many) why I still don’t communicate on Facebook, don’t Tweet, and, even though I love reading yours, I don’t blog.
    Next week I will attend my first writer’s conference. I know I am going to get spanked.When I desperately pitch my novel, some one is bound to ask me just what I have done so far to promote myself as an author. I am going to immediately feel the guilt of not completing my assignment. The fourteen year old inside of me will whimper that “the dog ate my homework, honest”.
    I’m bitter and I know it. I resent the idea that I may never get over the hump in the publishing world, no matter the quality of my writing, if I don’t jump on the wagon I don’t want to ride on. In the sweet truth of my three year old grandson’s word, “I can’t want to.”
    So, I continue almost daily to tell myself, Oh grow up. Just do do it. I will. I just don’t know what day yet.
    Thank you again for your beautiful posts, I’ve become a loyal fan.
    Janice
    Gilbertson

    Reply

    • Jana

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      Thanks, Janice, your comments mean a lot to me. As you know I also struggle with self promotion. I think a lot of writers do. Have faith in your work and take joy in the writing, and best of luck to you at the writer’s conference!

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    • Abe Van Luik

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      Janice, at almost every sentence in Jana’s essay I was formulating a response, and it would have started out exactly the same as yours:
      “With each of your posts that I read, I become more and more sure that we must have some deep (so deep I’ve no idea what it could be) connection. You write what I feel.”

      But it never occurred to me to feel this: “Ah, but then I read “replies” and find there are other readers who think the same. Well, darn.”

      I suspect it was not a serious “darn,” but a playful one, but I feel it is quite comforting that many of us are so much alike. When we examine how we respond, inwardly and outwardly, to this crisis-mode society that we live in, we see that many of us are responding much the same way: we are very caring, but with that often comes feeling overloaded and needing to protect our ‘selves’ from this onslaught of personal as well as commercial ‘soul-penetrating-screams’ designed to move us this way and that.

      I don’t want to excuse any callous people who are too self-centered to get involved in anything. But I want to excuse the people, like Jana, you, and me (I flatter myself, I know), whose sensitivity is such that we easily forget the second part of this saying: ‘be harmless as doves, but wise as serpents.’ If you give away so much of yourself that you are drained and suffering soul-fatigue, then you are neglecting the one charity that truly begins and necessarily remains at home no matter where you are: your inner well being.

      There are real differences between people. Some can do it all with energy left over. Not me. You pull me too many ways and I fall apart. Then I need to stop everything and heal.

      I believe I have become good at the ‘wise as serpents’ part, and I do wat Jana is apparently doing, I control the messages that I let touch me, to start, and then I control my responses to them. I focus effort exactly where I want to, not where others want me to.

      To some, and this is designed to hurt my feelings, and it always does, this means I am callous toward the specific suffering they are working to alleviate. And they are right. But I do what I believe is right in my own sphere of influence. That is how I stay the course for my life. It is the best I can do, and I am happy with it.

      Cheers –abe–

      Reply

      • Jana

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        Thanks, Abe, for those lovely thoughts. A friend of mine likened the pull of the many issues in her life to feeling as if she were in a salad spinner that has been cranked up and let go of, spinning wobbly and out of control. I suspect also that it takes people a while to find the right fit with any cause, and probably more often than not, the cause finds the person rather than the other way around. For many years, I bounced around in my volunteer work–a homeless shelter, a prison–and burned out quickly until a few things happened: (1) I began to practice what my husband calls “benign presence” (harmless as doves), which meant that I had to let go of “right,” (still learning!) (2) I got serious about my writing and realized that it was my main source of peace, passion, and activism, and (3) I came to this particular desert.

        Reply

  • David

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    Mary and I understand and relate. Just this morning we talked of and prayed for peace. We too enjoy the “practice” of yoga and the similar practice of peace. Keep practicing my cousin.

    Reply

    • Jana

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      Thank you, David. Peace to you and Mary.

      Reply

  • Sandy Brown

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    It’s easy for us to “stick-our-heads-in-the-sand” here in Escalante, Utah and be removed from the masses of injustice & misery that occur daily in the world. Even though I meditate twice daily, that inner peace is not always there. What helps me to find peace is to choose my battles, locally or globally. Occasionally, I do poke my head out for an opinion or two.

    Reply

    • Jana

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      Thanks, Sandy. I’m hesitate to equate the practice of local activism or the practice of peace with sticking one’s head in the sand. I believe peace and love to be as strong and effective as moral outrage in creating change–maybe even more so.

      Reply

  • Wayne

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    I always enjoy reading your blog. This month was no exception. It does seem rare these days for anyone to actually have a discussion about something they care about. What passes for discussion seems more like two people trying to win a debate. It’s as though we don’t actually listen to each other so much as just pause while we plot our next talking point. I really like what you said about letting go of “right” in the interest of learning and understanding. That’s my new goal. There is a song on You-Tube you might like, I do, about our lack of civil discourse. It’s called “Beat the Horse” (not literally) by Pomplamoose. I hope you’re enjoying a beautiful spring down south- it’s wonderful up here!

    Reply

    • Jana

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      Nice to hear from you, Wayne. Thanks for the you-tube suggestion; I’ll check it out. The weariness of yelling past one another must be in the collective consciousness. There’s an essay by Thomas Frank about Andrew Breitbart in the latest issue of Harper’s that touches on the same thing and an editorial in the NYTs this week that also does. Spring is lovely down here also. Heading out tomorrow for the year’s first backpack. Have you been riding?

      Reply

      • Wayne

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        Of course I’ve been riding- both motor and bicycle! Have you read “Ghostrider”? I read it last winter, reminded of your first book. It’s a memoir by the drummer of Rush. His wife and daughter both died within a year of each other so he took to the road on his “scooter” as he called it- a BMW similar to yours. A lot of unexpected depth from the drummer of a rock and roll band. When is your book going to available? You mentioned it being printed soon. I’m looking forward to reading it! Hope you enjoyed your trip!

        Reply

        • Jana

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          I haven’t read it; I’ll put it on my list. Thanks for the recommendation. It sounds great. The new novel should be out later this year, likely November. Thanks for asking. I’ll keep you posted.

          Reply

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