By Christopher Lammiman
I was tired. I was distracted. I wasn’t sure I had the capacity to be there at all. It had been a hectic season. We had just moved from the beauty and stillness of the forests of the Ghost Valley into the freneticism and discord of the city. We were both starting new jobs. It had only been two weeks since we moved into our new apartment. I hadn’t really even had a day off in over a month. It was a Saturday in October. Chilly, but the sun was out and there were still a few golden leaves hanging onto the poplar branches. I was attending the first ever event created by Refugia Retreats – a day long introductory workshop to Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects. I was tired. But I was there.
I arrived with few expectations, but a fair bellyful of anxiety. I was anxious about the day for the sake of Jodi, my partner. As one of the workshop facilitators, she was taking a courageous step: hoping that the work she and her co-conspirators had prepared would be meaningful for us participants. But I was also anxious for my own sake. Meeting people can be hard. Sharing personal feelings and thoughts with relative strangers can be very hard. But even more than any of these things, my cursory knowledge of The Work made me aware that we would be dealing with some of the most personal and vulnerable parts of ourselves. I have trouble allowing myself to go there, much less allowing others into that space. I was there. But I was anxious.
Others have probably stated it more eloquently, but the lesson I am learning about life is that all that is really required is to show up. Most of the messages I receive and amplify are variations on the theme of not being enough. Be better, do better, act better, feel better. Pull yourself together. This narrative is dangerous for me not only because it diminishes my intrinsic and kinetic worth, but also because it isolates. It is the story that disconnects: Like, I have to sort my stuff out before I’m any good to anyone else, so it’s probably best if I just don’t put myself out there quite yet. I’ll stay home today and work out my salvation – with fear. And trembling. But that’s a hard job, and so maybe instead I’ll just watch an episode or six of Breaking Bad. Thus, the not-enough messaging perpetuates a negative feedback loop that turns me away from my relationships, my community, my ecosystem, and my soul. I turn away. But showing up – tired or not, ready or not, comfortable or not – showing up is simultaneously an act of courage and an act of love. It’s not about being good. It’s about being there. Joanna Macy puts it like this:
“The biggest gift you can give is to be absolutely present, and when you’re worrying about whether you’re hopeful or hopeless or pessimistic or optimistic, who cares? The main thing is that you’re showing up, that you’re here and that you’re finding ever more capacity to love this world because it will not be healed without that. That was what is going to unleash our intelligence and our ingenuity and our solidarity for the healing of the world.”
So I was there. I wasn’t fully there – “absolutely present” – as Joanna puts it, but I was there. There were 17 of us, gathered in a small conference room in the west end of downtown Calgary. And it was, in the end, a hard day. The Work carries participants through four movements of a spiral: 1) Opening to gratitude; 2) Owning our pain for the world; 3) Seeing with new eyes; and 4) Going forth. It is beautiful, deep, meaningful work, but it can also be achingly difficult and personal work. It requires acknowledging and even embracing the whole truth of the mess we are in as a species. It brings to the surface the deep fear, grief, confusion, hope, and joy I hold in my soul – for the entire planet as well as for my little interior world. This is hard work. By the end of the day, I was exhausted. My heart though, was full.
“Refugia” is the name Jodi and Amy have chosen for this endeavor. It is an ecological term: Refugia are the small pockets of sanctuary found amid desolation and destruction where life survives, endures, regenerates. These refugium have been discovered where no one expected anything to survive – after the Mount St. Helens eruption, for example – and are the catalysts for new life and new growth in devastated areas. On that chilly day in October, those 17 of us gathered in that little conference room simultaneously discovered and created a refugium together. Joanna Macy says that we have the opportunity to live in the Great Turning – where we as a collective species turn from life-destroying systems toward life-sustaining systems. This turning is as big as changing our economic, political, and social systems. But it is also as small as turning toward each other in gratitude, lament, hope, and love. The Great Turning is me turning toward you. It is us turning toward each other, and all our neighbors (human and otherwise). It is turning towards ourselves, honestly, and openly; tired, anxious, whatever. It is a refusal to keep turning away. This is the gift I received from our little refugium that Saturday. A glimpse of the Great Turning manifest in the small turning toward. A small seed planted within that I will cultivate and tend to and add to our shared garden.
So, I was there. So I will keep trying to be there.