Ok, I need to vent.  So if you’re not up for that today, I understand.  Go find something uplifting to do, take a walk outside, do something nice for a friend, get some exercise or read poetry or pat a dog.  Give a fiver to that homeless vet flying a sign at the rotary on your way home.  Use your God given talent, whatever it may be, with purpose and for good.  But my God given talent is words, and I believe that God, as I understand her/him/it, does not want me to bite my tongue and sit on my hands. If you don’t want to read a rant, I get it; move on, with my blessing.  63EA0416-C331-43E9-BA48-F0CDEDA1C8B9_w650_r0_s

I’m tired of saying I’m tired, aren’t you?  Tired of yet again, being told what I need to do is pray for grieving family members and school children who lost their son or daughter, brother or sister, niece or nephew,  best friend or classmate or teacher to another preventable mass shooting.  Tired of feeling helpless to enact laws or even talk about legislation that might protect children from gun violence in school.  Tired of hearing weary reporters describe yet another troubled, angry lost soul who took out his misery on innocents; tired of reading about the beautiful “angels” lost too soon; tired of candlelight vigils and church services and gutless, morally bankrupt politicians and pundits pulling long faces on Fox News or CNN, expressing regret about this or that tragedy, telling me to “pray,” and then steadfastly refusing to do jack shit about it.  Tired of waking up to headlines like “Fatal Rampage Lasted Just Minutes,” “Alleged Shooter Had History of Violence,” “Killer Armed with Multiple Weapons, Rounds of Ammo.”  Or increasingly, leads like this one from this morning’s New York Times: “Gunfire Erupts at a School. Leaders Offer Prayers. Children Are Buried. Repeat.”

I’m most enervated by these stories: “A Look at the Victims of the XYZ Massacre,” accompanied by pictures of fresh-faced children with sparkling eyes in cheerleader uniforms or first grade play costumes; with band instruments; hugging a friend; playing ball.  They are gap-toothed kindergartners, or teenagers– awkward nerds or glowing athletes or self-conscious selfie poseurs–all enshrined with words like “beautiful soul,” “leader,” “compassionate,” “amazing,” and, to me, one of the most heartbreaking adjectives of all: “promising.”  All that potential, the motherlove and fatherly devotion, all the family sacrifices and compromises made in the name of raising a beloved child, the soccer games and swim meets, music and dance recitals, the TV shows and best friends and bake sales and family squabbles that mark a son or daughter’s life—we parents live out these rituals with a profound faith in our children’s fruition into adult lives.  The president’s speechwriter yesterday actually did an okay job of noting the awful truth of that broken promise.

Here’s a headline from today’s paper to crack you in half: “A Mother Weeps for her Angel: ‘I Hope She Didn’t Die for Nothing.’”

Here’s a cruel reality.  She probably did.

How long will we continue to send our empty prayers to God, who must receive them at this point with disbelief: “What do you expect ME to do about it?”  Without our voices, God is voiceless, without our hands to do her work in the world, she sits paralyzed. Is she supposed to stop school shootings with well-timed bolts of lightning?  Why do we expect God to act when we do not?  Why should he comfort us in the face of our self-created paralysis? We’ve been granted free will, not a free pass to kick everything back to the guy upstairs.

Let’s look at Scripture on the subject:

In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.   James 2:17

James has a lot to say about faith and action: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?” “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”  “Be doers of the word, not merely hearers.”  (James 2:14 – :20)

Yet our leaders consistently invoke our prayers, as if that’s enough.  It’s NOT.  And I am so effing sick of their empty hypocrisy.  The President yesterday spoke directly to America’s children, assuring them they are loved, they need not be afraid, they have “people who will do anything to protect” them.  This is a lie.  What he won’t do to protect them is have a rational conversation about gun violence and its threat to public safety in our country.  Explain to me why it’s reasonable that any seventeen year old can buy an assault weapon, let alone a kid with a history of discipline issues and emotional disturbance.  Explain to me why my individual second amendment right to bear arms should be completely unfettered by any compromises for the public good, such as universal background checks or limits on how much ammo I can buy in a given year. I’m not proposing we take away anyone’s guns.  I am suggesting we should be able to have an adult dialogue about laws that seriously weigh our collective public safety against individual rights to bear an arsenal, and that some trade off acknowledging this tension is worth pursuing.  Otherwise, the rights of the Nikolas Cruzes and Stephen Paddocks of our country will continually trump the foundational rights of the rest of our “angels” –the freedom to go to school and survive is a fundamental example of the pursuit of life and liberty, isn’t it?    Explain to me how we are going to deal with the “scourge” of mental health in our country when the White House has yet to appoint a science advisor, when budget proposals slash funding from sciences, from the NIH, from the CDC, and when congressional leaders and the White House continually seek to unravel the Affordable Care Act, which requires insurers to cover behavioral health.  How are middle class or poor families to deal with the exorbitant costs of mental health diagnosis and treatment without insurance to help defray those expenses?  Explain to me why our society denigrates teachers, suggesting as a CLASS they are overpaid, underperforming, and lazy, when so many are in fact such dedicated professionals that they will literally take a bullet for their students. They show up for work every day, dedicated to providing the best education they can in circumstances that are too often underfunded, misunderstood, and increasingly, dangerous for them and for their students; they pay for Kleenex and school supplies out of their own salaries while the Ann Coulters of the world vilify them as useless, socialist government employees.

Certain news outlets would suggest that my views are typically hysterical, hand-wringing, sky-is-falling liberal attacks on the second amendment.  Tell that to the parents of dead students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida or Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.  I suggest those parents are subject to all these “typical” emotions and worse right now, and that a response that insists on the urgency of dealing with gun violence as a public health crisis is in fact a.) the only rational one in the face of yet another senseless mass shooting, b.) the best way to honor their earth-shattering loss, and c.) an act of sacrificial empathy.  If that’s being a snowflake, I proudly melt.  Offering our prayers is too easy: the parents of Parkland, Sandy Hook, Littleton, and so many other towns, will suffer from the agony born of our inaction for the rest of their lives.  We owe them our deepest apology, the most hand-wringing, heartfelt, sky-IS-falling commitment to collective responsibility for remediating this uniquely American dysfunction.

This post is me putting my faith into action.  In the coming days, I’ll be combatting my sense of impotence and hopelessness by sending legislators photos and biographies of children killed by people wielding not simply untreated mental illness (yes, I agree, no question, this too must be addressed), but GUNS.  Perhaps I’ll write mock news stories about lawmakers’ kids to goose their imaginations along: “Ex-student kills 15 in deadly rampage at exclusive Maryland private school.  Baron Trump among the fallen.  A weeping Melania Trump said, ‘We are broken. He was our angel.  I hope his death wasn’t for nothing.’”  I’m no fan of the President, but I wouldn’t wish that pain on him or his family in a million years.  No parent should have to bear it.

When our son Nate was a freshman at Lincoln-Sudbury High School, an affluent and high-ranking suburban high school, a boy was stabbed to death in a bathroom early one morning by a troubled student.  Nate was already at school, buses and carpools had arrived and the day was starting.  The boy who died, James Alenson, was a 15 year old freshman. His obituary describes how he had worked at an organic farm and wanted to be a Counselor in Training at his summer camp.  He loved the Patriots and comedy, he was beloved by his parents and siblings.  He hadn’t known his attacker at all.  We will never know what might have happened if James’ murderer had brought an assault rifle to school that morning instead of a knife, but sadly, we can guess.   So don’t tell me mental illness is the only culprit in mass school shootings or that guns don’t kill more people.

From today’s Boston Globe:

An aunt, Lindsay Fontana, wrote on Facebook: ‘‘I had to tell my 8-year-old daughters that their sweet cousin Cara was killed in the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School yesterday. We are absolutely gutted.’’

‘‘While your thoughts are appreciated, I beg you to DO SOMETHING,’’ she wrote. ‘‘This should not have happened to our niece Cara and it cannot happen to other people’s families.’’

We can start to do something by changing the dialogue from one about second amendment rights to a discussion of gun violence as a public health crisis.  For inspiration, see Nicholas Kristoff’s excellent piece:  How to Reduce Shootings

Thanks, New Yorker, for sending this email to me just now:

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IMG_0683It was easy to feel sorry for myself on the first morning of our retreat, as melted butter light poured onto the bamboo floor of the jungle house.  The faces of my co-retreatants around the orientation circle were open and relaxed.  My head felt woozy, congestion oozing silently behind the bridge of my nose, my sinuses throbbing and packed.  I had booked the trip last June, while still uncoiling from the shock of a personal crisis. My intent was to give myself a gift of pleasure and joy, among friends, to dance and recharge, refilling my well of spirit, love, and vitality, drained by months of worry and instability.  That first day, I found it hard to stay present to the glory of this place with the exotic name, Xinalani, fighting the sunken feeling of a heavy cold and the press of new anxiety, another crisis on the home front, more chaos, out-of-the-blue.  It’s been that kind of year for so many of us. I had to sit out a couple of songs to rest, which isn’t like me.

The trip here was a blur. Not surprisingly given the stress of the prior week, I’d come down with a cold. A sore throat came on sharply as a papercut Thursday night while I was packing; it blossomed into a stupefying head cold by pre-dawn Saturday morning when the cab picked me up for the airport.  At Logan, I was still deeply engaged in difficulties at home, parrying texts and firing off emails, my mind flickering from the bag drop to the phone to the security guard who raised an eyebrow in irritation and spoke to me as if explaining TSA pre-check etiquette to an inattentive child. “Your passport, ma’am,” she grumbled pointedly, probably for not for the first time, as I juggled phone, boarding pass, passport, my reading glasses.   I stopped for Kleenex and cough drops at Hudson News and nearly left my wallet sitting by the gum and candy bars. “Lady, lady, don’t forget,” the cashier called after me.    One of the friends I was traveling with met us at the gate.  “Oh, boy, you look thumped,” she said.


Yet cold and crisis be damned, I was on my way to Xinalani, this idyllic spot, where I now write from my gently swinging hammock.  When words fail to come, I look out, through the rough-hewn posts of our balcony, painted mustard brown and lashed into place by coiled rope, at the distant ocean.  There are humpback whales out there, and bottlenose dolphins.  We crossed over to Xinalani from Puerto Vallarta on a shuttle skiff.  Two humpback whales breached not thirty yards off our port side, their knotty spines arcing gracefully through the water and disappearing like an old-fashioned roller coaster into the depths before – wait for it! – the fluke appeared, a high-five from an ancient world.  “Ahhhh!!” we all squealed in childlike awe.  We see the whales again from the balcony of our casita, announced by a spurt as they surface, and also at lunchtime, where we can trace their movements by spying glasslike patches on the sea surface where the water grows still before a sudden spout heralds their arrival.  Awesome, in the purest sense of that overused word.  At dinner one night, a woman in our group I’ve just met, Megan, an expedition leader on Alaskan nature cruises, tells us about the time she led a group of kayakers in a glacial bay paddle.  A pod of humpbacks was “bubble net feeding,” a collaborative fishing technique where whales circle around under the surface, using air bubbles to corral their meal. Megan was only yards away when several humpbacks emerged, headfirst like synchronized swimmers, mouths open to drink in the fish.  She froze, not daring to move in the face of this massive coordination.  Such prodigious things happen below the surface.  They take us by surprise.

There is little about Xinalani and this long-awaited respite that is anything less than awesome.  The people, I gotta say, these women who dance and celebrate, who live with intention and courage, compassion and humor, they are my tribe. They are intellectual and curious, artistic and activist. Young Amy is a twenty-something farmer from Virginia, “dragged” along with her mother, yet still so open and interested.  She eschews cellphones and the web; she is wise beyond her years. Grownup Amy tells us sadly of her impending divorce the Tuesday after we return: it’s the right thing, perhaps many years overdue, but still, it’s bittersweet. How could it be otherwise, after thirty-plus years? Kayla is a hospice nurse with two young children at home—she used to be a tour guide in Mexico and she’s a killer salsa dancer.  We celebrate her fortieth birthday on Wednesday by singing Happy Birthday to her forty times.  Alanna just sold her flower shop in British Columbia and is moving with her husband and eight-year-old son to become a rural lavender farmer. She sometimes sits out a song to watch the rest of us dancing, moved, her eyes brimming.  Kay is a seventy-eight-year-old college professor; we talk about Jane Austen and the Brontes one day at lunch, and she tells me she still loves to teach.  Kyra from Colorado (our group numbers two Kiras) is a smoky voiced veterinarian from Boulder.  We sit on the beach after dinner one night while she discreetly smokes a cigarette, and she describes her complicated family life, a father married five times, a wonderful step-mother (wife number two, I believe) who raised all the children as if they were her own, two siblings lost to untimely deaths.   Robyn and I laugh like college girls in our shared casita; Lisa and I salsa together, loose-hipped and grinning. We tease our pal Massachusetts-Kira about doing homework for her online course in her palatial room, and she glows in response. Every woman I meet in our group is beautiful, thoughtful, vulnerable and strong.

The place itself is magical:  Good Lord, I have to think, what an extraordinary planet you have gifted to us.  Rippling mountains tufted green with jungle flora plunge to the Pacific, the beach dotted with surf-smoothed boulders, the water aqua and clear.  It feels like a bazillion steps up the hill to our tree-house room, set on posts into the mountainside. “Fuck,” Robyn mutters that first afternoon when we arrive, dog-tired after ten hours in transit, as we follow two resort employees up the switchback staircases, our over-packed suitcases bouncing jauntily on their shoulders.  But we grow used to the climb.  Jungle birds screech and caw, waves murmur far below, washing the shore with a variety of sounds, from soft shush-shushing to muted slaps to thundering cracks as water smacks the rocks.  I sleep luxuriously well, in my cocoon bed, gauzy white linens on all four sides, the ocean’s distant susurrus a gentle lullaby. A generous swig of Nyquil seals the deal.

I don’t know what I did in this life, or any other, to possibly deserve such an experience, recuperating from a strained year in this luxury, fed three lush meals a day, offered facials and massages, cooking classes and hikes, sipping a Corona overlooking the local “cascada,” falling asleep in a nest-like bed with curtains drawn against any little bugs that might dare to disrupt my rest.  I dance, I perform sun salutations, I laugh with my friends, old and new.  I feel myself recovering some lost equilibrium, a hibiscus unfurling in a time-lapse image, minute by minute.  I am so very fortunate, and grateful.

On our last evening at Xinalani, our leaders Al, Vickie and Jill design a lovely closing ritual in the meditation hut.  It sits at one of the highest points on the property, an open-air pavilion with soaring views across the jungle treetops out to the sea.  We are ringed in a circle.  One by one, each woman steps into the circle and works her way around, stopping in front of each of us to receive a word describing something about her that inspires us.  It’s intimate, and we speak softly, but some of the words float into the air, audible on the evening breeze: “beautiful,” “brave,” “spunky,” “healer,” “graceful.”  It’s touching, looking someone in the eyes, mind searching for a pearl to give her: “sister,” “beloved,” “kickass’.” My turn comes and I am moved by the ways in which I am seen by my peers.   Afterwards, we dress in white and clamber down the hundreds of steps for dinner on the beach, followed by salsa lessons in the bar with a Cuban dance instructor named Jiadri.  He is spindly and tall, with beautiful skin the color of dark chocolate and hips that gyrate faster than Vitamix blades.  In heavily-spiced English, he teaches us to count the salsa beats, impressed by how quickly we “pretty womans” pick up the rhythm.  Apparently, no one has told him we are on a dance retreat.  He punctuates the steps with a little jingle: instead of “One, Two, Three (and) Five, Six, Seven (and),” he says, “ Sexy, Sexy. Sexy, Sexy. Sexy, Sexy, All the time.”  We laugh and dance, sipping through straws from a communal margarita in a giant glass that reminds me of the Scorpion bowls at Trader Vic’s in New York when I was in high school.  The poker-faced students on yoga retreat sharing the resort this week sit on the sidelines, looking askance at our unruly enthusiasm.  We have not been without incident:  one of our group leaders is stricken with Montezuma’s revenge early in the week, a friend from Massachusetts leaves ahead of schedule with a sciatica flare-up, another breaks a bone in her foot disembarking from a boat and is carried up and down the resort stairs by the young Mexican bartenders and busmen.  Yet we are, for the most part, happy and relaxed.  We all needed this “me-treat” so badly.

On the flight home, I think of words for everyone in my various families:  my Xinalani Nia tribe, sisters and goddesses, warm, sage, compassionate, exquisite.  For my father: generous and protective; for my mother, overcoming and devoted.  For my sister-in-law:  loyal, indefatigable, resourceful.  For my younger brother: insightful, intrepid, open-hearted.  (Also: heroic.)  I could go on and on:  John, my heart and soulmate, visionary and profound; Nate, brainy, sensitive, free-thinking; Lucy, creative, brilliant, gorgeous; Mia, intelligent, passionate, sparkling with music.  And my older brother:  witty, caring, beloved friend of so many people.   These words dance around my heart, holding hands sometimes, breaking off into solo motions at others, wafting on the forgiving breeze of a universe that inextricably mingles beauty and heartache, snowstorms and beaches, good years and tough ones, loving it all.