Is possible? That used to be my question because as much as I experience change – in habits, in beliefs, in behavior, from the micro level of family dynamics to the macro level of society, sometimes it seems like things not only don’t change for the better but they stagnate and fester. Brothers don’t speak to each other; mothers refuse to take responsibility for childhood hurt; racism continues to express itself in ugly, violent ways; women still don’t feel safe, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
The question that is more interesting to me is how does change happen? What internal resources can we develop and nurture that effect change? Above all, I think, the key component is the belief – or even reaching for the belief that change is possible. That as we sit with uncomfortable feelings and truths, listen without getting caught in judgment, and notice even tiny shifts, we are able to deepen our capacity to be vulnerable, which is a major ingredient in being able to change. In this state of vulnerability, we can take small steps, be open to support, increase our patience, and celebrate the tendrils of change as they start to take root.
I have a family member who recently apologized for a hurtful situation that happened about 20 years ago. The heartfelt apology, where understanding finally bloomed about what had happened, was beautiful and astounding. I also was able to acknowledge a piece of their historical pain that I had not understood before. Throughout years of sometimes connecting and more often not; the willingness to be open to the possibility of change plus the ability to be vulnerable, allowed us to try again to share and to listen, to forgive and to be in the present.
Maybe it isn’t even the belief that change is possible but actually the courage to believe. Looking at a broken world of pain and suffering, healing can seem impossible. And when I look up the definition of vulnerable, it includes words like exposed, weak, defenseless, and helpless. To choose to be in that state is brave. To have support and encouragement in that state is imperative.
I have been touched by the book Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, and, in particular her teachings about building a handmade fire. It resonates for me today as I think about the belief in change being possible – and the vulnerability of taking steps towards change:
Perhaps there are lessons in the building of a handmade fire that will help us now…fires do not make themselves. The earth provides the materials, and the laws of thermodynamics. Humans must provide the work, and the knowledge, and the wisdom. To use the power of fire for good. The spark itself is a mystery. But we know that before that fire can be lit, we have to gather the tinder, the thoughts, and the practices, that will nurture the flame…. So much depends on the body. Each joint at the right angle, left arm wrapped around knee and braced at the shin. Left leg bent. Back stretched. Shoulders locked. Left forearm bearing down. Right arm pushes and pulls in one smooth draw, without breaking the plane of the upright shin. So much depends on the architecture, stability in three dimensions, and fluidity in the fourth. So much depends on the motion of the shaft against the board so that movement becomes friction, heat building and building, spinning and spinning the drill down on the bowl, burning its way into a black and shining space so smooth that the pressure and heat burn from the wood a fine powder which gathers together in its need for warmth until it forms a coal that falls under its own weight through a notch in the board, onto the waiting tinder. So much depends on the tinder….Time and again I get to this point, where the heat has built and the fragrant smoke from the burning cedar bowl begins to rise around my face. Almost. I think, almost! And then my hand slips, and the spindle goes flying, and the coal breaks apart, and I’m left with no fire.
And I remember…the Fire Keeper fungus, the holder of the spark that cannot be extinguished. I go back to where the wisdom lives, in the woods and humbly ask for help. I lay down my gift, in return for all that is given and start again.
Can we start again – with our bodies, minds, and spirits, to nurture the spark of hope within? What materials do we need to build and to stoke our fire? What will help us to sustain courage through the times when the fire does not light? Tenderness is calling to me now – the soft breath of hope, as well as the hard edge of grief. Holding both I go forward to pick up my tinder and willingly begin the next fire.