It is the 28th of December 2022, right in the heart of that delicious limbo week between Christmas and New Year.  Most people are (hopefully) home with loved ones, satiated and resting. Many, who like me, live in the southern hemisphere are planning to head to the beach or find any body of water where they can be cool on this gorgeous summer’s day. Today I am in a clinic though, in a darkened room with no windows – and there is no place I would rather be.

TOWARDS A PATH WITH HEART

To get to this day of embryo transfer has taken over a year, and I am even more sure that this is what I want to do than when I first offered to be a gestational surrogate in October 2021. I have started this blog so that you can come on this unusual journey with me, both the one that led up today and the mystery of what lies ahead. 

I imagine that there are many things about which you are curious, and I hope that I can answer your questions. Many wonder, out loud or to themselves, if it is wise to (help to) bring a child into this world when everything seems especially precarious and fragile. 

Our country and our world are in a tight corner. Politics gives scant cause for hope, evidence of inequality and injustice abounds and anxiety about climate change climbs as yet another COP summit has forged no real commitment to making the sacrifices that are clearly necessary…. 

It is in this context that I have kept this quote from Vaclac Havel close for a while now. He observed that, “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the conviction that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” So what is worth doing? I wonder. How and who do I want to be? And what in particular is mine to do? What makes sense in a world that often leaves me feeling powerless and overwhelmed? I know I am not alone in asking these questions.

2021 was a tough year for me. I experienced many losses, including separating from the father of my two girls and moving out of our shared home. Midway through the year I wrote this poem that I initially called Brokenheartedness. But then I changed the title to Wholeheartedness, the quality which, along with generosity, I was realising was more important to me than anything else:

   I am learning to live with my heart constantly broken open.

   Because this is how I choose to be.

   Because this is how I grow.

 

   Like a farmer, or a teacher, or a parent,

   I keep reaching inside myself and sharing what I find.

   I offer my being, sometimes just a simple smile, as shade and water.

 

   Some seeds send down shoots into the fecund earth,

   the mystery of their growth still invisible to me.

   Some emerge – oh joy! – reaching for the sun.

   

   And some stall or wither on arid soil, 

   taking dreams and hopes of mine with them.

 

   Could I have prepared the ground better?

   Absolutely.

   Could I have tended with more care and patience?

   No doubt.

 

   I learn.

   I till the soil a little better.

   I pay more attention.

   I forgive myself,

   and I keep on sowing.

 

   It’s the only thing I know to do.

   It’s the only thing I can do.

   It’s the only thing that makes sense to me.

 

   To love. To believe. To share. To participate in Life.

   To give thanks when seeds grow, and when they die.

   To be grateful to feel closer to God.

 

At the time of writing this poem, the idea of being a gestational surrogate and nurturing another human’s seed within my body had not occurred to me. I just knew that I was done numbing myself in order to live as I thought others needed or expected me to and that, even through heartbreak, it was possible to keep my heart open. I was committed to following what Carlos Castaneda calls “a path with heart”. About this he counsels, “All paths are the same, they lead nowhere… but one path has heart, the other doesn’t. One makes for a joyful journey, as long as you follow it, you are one with it… A path without heart is never enjoyable. You have to work hard to even to take it. On the other hand, a path with heart is easy, it does not work at making you like it.”

And so it was that in October of last year I arrived on time (hence early by Cape Town standards) for the 70th birthday party of a dear mentor of mine named Judy. Not many people were there yet, and I fell into conversation with two very good-looking men. I learnt that they had married recently and both done rites of passage work with Judy and her wife, Valerie. I remember being struck by their kindness with each other and a real sense of beauty about them that was more than skin deep.  I moved on, had fun on the dance floor and two weeks later came across an image of the same couple on Facebook in a poster a friend of theirs had shared. They were looking for a gestational surrogate, and the criteria included someone who was motivated by altruistic reasons, had at least one child already and was employed or earning an income. The poster stipulated that age was not a factor, providing a health assessment was clear.

“Now there’s an experience in generosity,” I thought… I closed my eyes and felt into my body. It was a clear, “Yes”. Everything in me felt aligned and alive. Having lived most of my 42 years thus far disconnected from my body,  learning to check in like this was a new practice I had been honing for 2 years since discovering Zen Coaching. In this approach one directs attention into the sensations in one’s body in the moment, establishes a sense of connection and then discerns just one action – the next right step. 

For me, the next step was to write to the men, which I did. I told myself that I would just keep taking one step at a time. If the way was easy and flowed, I would consider these “green ticks” and keep proceeding. Meeting them the following week was one such tick. Their home was as gorgeous as they were, and there was a real sense of substance about them too. I was struck by how thoughtful they were about parenthood and how prepared they were. Bunk beds and a treehouse had already been built, difficult conversations had been broached…

We discussed many things that night, our families and backgrounds especially, and how we might be connected through the pregnancy and beyond. They would come to all the doctors’ appointments, visit the baby regularly while I was pregnant and be present at the birth. But the baby would go straight into their arms and I would not be involved once born, unless along the way we decided to revise that. I asked that my girls and I could meet the baby when they were about a week old and that we could get a picture every year on their birthday after that. We recognised that, especially as we had mutual friends and lived near to each other, we might bump into each other occasionally and that we would not make rigid parameters for contact.

Discussing the surrogacy with my ten year old was another green tick. We were walking on Cape Town’s glorious Sea Point Promenade in December 2021 when an opportunity presented itself. She was talking about how her father’s girlfriend wanted children and she asked me if I wanted more children. I told her how doctors had told me I would not be able to have children (because I had polycystic ovarian syndrome) and how deeply grateful I was that, to my surprise, I had conceived and carried both her and her younger sister to term easily. 

I explained that some people could not have biological children for various reasons and that I had recently met the Dads who were so ready and eager to be parents, just like her father and I had been. I explained to her how surrogacy worked and that the Dads would use a donor egg so that the baby that I might carry would not be her sibling. I told her that this felt like a way I could pay it forward for the deep gift that my children were in my life. Being naturally curious and scientifically orientated, she had lots of questions and then became thoughtful and fell into silence.  A few hours later, when we were back home, she lifted her head from a book and announced,

“Mom, I think you should do this.”

“Why, my Darling?” I asked.

“Because it will bring more joy into the world!”

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THE PATHS THAT LEAD ME HERE

I work as an advocate for hospices and an end-of-life companion. Many tell me they do not understand how I work so close to death and dying consistently, but I love my work, as do so many in the palliative care sector. It feels like a privilege and sacred work. Death and loss are realities that we often shy away from, but living up close to this and talking about this often feels real and sane to me. It grounds me and keeps me facing in the right direction, though sometimes it does get heavy. So the idea of cultivating new life while continuing to work in this space, feels like both good medicine and a stretch.

The writer and mystic Andrew Harvey contends that in the face of loss and grief it is imperative that we adopt a “rigorous discipline of joy” and I love this. Life’s tragedies, injustices and losses can close us or we can allow them to make us more tender and compassionate. My consistent prayer is to be opened so that I can be with life exactly as it is, with all the joy, terror, pain and beauty. 

I was initiated into loss early in my life. My friend Damian died by suicide when we were both 15 years old. I had seen him that morning. It was the first day of the Spring holidays, and we discussed our plans. He told me he was “going to lie in the grass” and invited me to the movies that night. I was dismissive, holding the hope that I might see his older brother instead. And as it turned out, his brother was at my home that evening when their mother called, wailing. My Mom drove us across town in the dark that night and I will never forget how, as we approached their farmhouse, a solitary candle was burning in the window. In that moment a surreal sense of peace came over me that I had never felt before. I found that I intuitively knew what to do and how to be with Damian’s family. I stayed with them for most of the next week, providing comfort where I could, up until his funeral, at which I spoke. His body had been found in a patch of grass up by the dam just behind their home, where he had shot himself and his father had found him lying.

I returned to school after that week-long holiday, grappling with guilt and so many questions. I was probably his closest friend and yet I had missed his cues. I had not listened well. In addition, many things were changing in that October of 1994. South Africa was a fledgling democracy and, having grown up privileged and white, I felt my world expanding at an exhilarating rate. I wanted to get to really know the peers from which apartheid had forcibly kept me separate. I wanted to figure out what our role as young people was in our promising new country, and I wanted to listen this time, really listen. I formed my first NGO – called Youth with Vision – left school half way through Grade 11 and began homeschooling myself so that I could condense the last 18 months of my schooling into 6 and begin a university programme on leadership early – but that is a story for another day.

Whether it has been starting and growing organisations, teaching myself and beginning university at 16, retooling my career in education to work with those who are dying or offering to be a gestational surrogate, people have often remarked on how courageous I seem. But it has never felt like that to me, it is more like a madness, a kind of otherworldly certainty that seizes you when you know what is yours to love – whether that is a place, a project or a person. I have felt that feeling many times in my life and I have come to trust it. I have also learnt to wait and be patient if I do not feel what the poet Mary Oliver refers to in a poem called West Wind #2 as, “that unmistakable pounding.” Of this she writes:

“You are young. So you know everything. You leap into the boat and begin rowing. But listen to me. Without fanfare, without embarrassment, without any doubt, I talk directly to your soul. Listen to me. Lift the oars from the water, let your arms rest, and your heart, and heart’s little intelligence, and listen to me. There is life without love. It is not worth a bent penny, or a scuffed shoe. It is not worth the body of a dead dog nine days unburied. When you hear, a mile away and still out of sight, the churn of the water as it begins to swirl and roil, fretting around the sharp rocks – when you hear that unmistakable pounding – when you feel the mist on your mouth and sense ahead the embattlement, the long falls plunging and steaming – then row, row for your life toward it.”

If anything, that might be what makes me a bit different and seemingly courageous – it is that, mostly, I have heeded this sincere injunction of hers. Choosing a “path with heart”, many times over, has required me to face my greatest fears – something I may write more about in time to come. The paths I have chosen and want to keep choosing lead, I trust, to increasing open-heartedness and wholeheartedness. And so we return to the story I began with…

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DECISION TIME

Having engaged with the Dads and decided to take the next step, my following conversation was with their lawyer, a specialist in fertility matters. He explained to me that South Africa has progressive and thorough laws for surrogacy and that the three of us would need to submit an application to the court that included medical, psychological and criminal checks. 

I asked him whether I should provide the baby with breastmilk as well, something I was leaning towards as my role was to give them the best head start that I could. Interestingly, he advised against it saying that a) the quality of some formula milk is very high these days, and b) it was probably a bridge too far for my children. He recommended that there should be a line in the sand, a time when my children got me back just for themselves and that this should be when I returned from the hospital. To return without a baby but still be expressing milk a few times a day for them would probably be hard for them. Rather express colostrum for the baby whilst still in hospital, take medicine to dry up my milk and return home and give my girls my full attention. Torn as I was, this made sense to me and provided some comfort even. I would give and do everything I could up until the baby was born and that would be the line, for my girls and myself.

The next step was to have blood tests done and have a physical examination at the fertility clinic. Happily, as a dear friend remarked afterwards, my “geriatric uterus passed the test”. Then I had to fill out a 27-page questionnaire for the psychologist and go and meet her. I passed that test too, as well as the criminal checks – phew! The Dads had to have similar assessments done, and we remarked wryly at the time that it is a pity that all potential parents are not screened as thoroughly. 

The last thing that I wanted to make sure of, before I signed the Surrogacy Agreement that the lawyer had drawn up and we submitted our extensive paperwork to the courts, was that my daughters were both comfortable to proceed. So in January 2022, I took them to meet the Dads. The girls warmed to them as quickly as I had, and it helped that they had extremely cute dogs. As we drove away, I asked them, 

“So girls, how do you feel about the surrogacy now?” 

My matter-a-fact ten-year old answered,  “Well Mom, I was worried about how they would afford a child, but now that I’ve seen their home I am not worried about that anymore!”

______________________

TALKING THE WALK

This was something I had been pondering: It is well and good to be generous, but I am doing this for two men who are already resourced in many ways. Their child would have two fathers in a country where so many children grow up without any. Was there any way that this act of mine could reach further, and touch other lives? 

I discussed documenting our journey with the Dads but, for many good reasons, they were reticent about participating. As the months went on I kept mulling this over. Years ago as I was shifting out of the education sector and training to be a “death doula” I started a website called Soulfullness, a reflection of my own exploration and inspirations as I sought to live with meaning and connection. I have been so busy transitioning in many ways since then that there is not a lot of content on this site yet, but in the year ahead I intend to change this. 

I reverted to the Dads to ask if they were comfortable for me to share my own experience of helping to bring new life into the world whilst protecting their privacy, and they graciously agreed. My intention is to weave this through with reflections on other themes that I keep returning to – like dying and grief, spirituality, parenting and climate change. These are heavy topics (none of which I am an expert on) but, as I began, my inclination is towards mature hope and a rigorous discipline of joy and my aim is to share this with those who want to come along with me for the next year, whatever it may bring.

So from here on I’ll share a monthly post, called ‘A Steady Bow” that is inspired by these lines from Khalil Gibran’s prose On Children,

“Your children are not your children

They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself

They come through you but not from you

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you…For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children

as living arrows are sent forth.

The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,

and He bends you with His might

that His arrows may go swift and far.

Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;

For even as He loves the arrow that flies,

so He loves the bow that is stable.”

If you have young people in your midst, or not, and care deeply about our future as humans on this planet, you might, like me, be interested in this question of how we step forward as stable bows in times that are likely to be increasingly turbulent. This is what I am exploring in many ways in my life, including quite literally by availing my body as a vehicle for a child who is not mine. If you would like to come with me on this journey over the next year, you will be invited to contribute to my crowdfunding campaign to raise money to build a home for a fatherless two-year old who lives in a township in Cape Town. More information can be found below but for now, back to our story once again…

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GETTING THE GREEN LIGHT

Finally in October 2022, a full year after I first felt that first “Yes”, we learnt that our court application had been approved. I checked in with my body again and there was no doubt at all. I consulted with my girls and they were slightly nervous but also excited, and so I stepped up my preparatory measures. Often a lazy eater, I sought to improve my diet and started taking high quality vitamins, in addition to the daily supplement I had been using. I became more disciplined about doing either yoga or walking each day. I also began writing to the little one and one of my poems for them is included at the end of this post.

The fertility clinic checked to ensure that the anonymous egg donor the Dads had chosen was still available and, as she is a student currently, plans were made for her eggs to be retrieved after her end-of-year exams. On the 5th of December 2022 I visited the clinic for an injection that shut down my own egg production, temporarily kicking me into early menopause a few months shy of my 44th birthday! Thankfully, they gave me hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and I started taking high doses of oestrogen the next day. Most likely because I started HRT so quickly, I experienced no side effects over the following weeks and, I have to admit I felt a bit robbed as I really was hoping to experience a hot flush. But my friends who have tell me that was very foolish of me!

It was on this same visit that the nursing sister explained to me how the process of embryo transfer would work. It sounded like a special moment in the process, something I had not appreciated, and so I invited the Dads to come with me, but they had plans to be out of town that they could not change. Any family representative that they wanted to send then perhaps? I asked. 

They pondered this and proposed, “How about Valerie and Judy?”

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TRANSFER DAY

And so it was that my beloved mentors – who have been in my corner ever since I was 15, who sponsored my very first Youth With Vision camp and are the reason that I met the Dads in the first place – were both with me when embryo transfer took place today.  They arrived at the clinic with glee, introducing themselves to the medical team as the “honourary grandparents”, and all three of us were mesmerised by the careful explanations that unfolded. 

We learned, for example, that the embryologists looking through a microscope can only tell if an embryo is beautiful looking but not if it is nice i.e. healthy. In this way, it is much like meeting a person and going on appearances. But our bodies know. Once an embryo is in the uterus, scientists have witnessed the lining literally reaching out and embracing the embryo and drawing it in. This is called implantation and it takes place between 24-48 hours after transfer. If, however, the embryo is not “nice”, my lining would not engage at all and, about a week later, the embryo and the lining leave my body as menses.

“The uterine brain…” Judy marvelled out loud. 

Next, the gynaecologist took us to the laboratory where we could see live images of the three eggs that had been fertilised on a screen – exactly 118,8 hours before according to the counter that was running. It was clear that one of the eggs had not developed, and the embryologists ran an astonishing video sequence that showed how the other two eggs had multiplied and changed dramatically over the  previous five days. They explained why they had chosen the embryo that they would place inside my uterus, leaving the other one to be frozen for use if this transfer did not work. 

Then I was taken to the “transfer room”, asked to lie down on a bed and position my legs in stirrups. Once a blanket was demurely over my bottom half, the doctor and her assistant came in with Valerie and Judy. What followed was like the process of preparing for a pap smear and then a thin catheter was inserted into my uterus. On another screen above us, the chosen embryo came into focus and we watched as it was picked up from the petri dish it was lying in by a tube and washed through the catheter into my body. This was the moment, one of many along the way, and I reached out for Judy’s hand. The microscope image came back into view and we could see that the embryo was no longer in the tube. And that was that. The doctor said I could do flick flacks if I wanted to, the precious embryo was now safely inside me.

Unsure of what to do with ourselves after such an eventful half hour, the three of us emerged into the sunshine and decided to go and enjoy lunch at the venue where Judy had had her 70th and I had met the Dads for the first time. I sent them a picture of the healthy food I was eating and the non-alcoholic sparkling grape juice I was toasting with, and Valerie sent them the many videos she had made during our time in the clinic. Later, the Dads sent a voice note to say how included they felt throughout and how, like us, they were amazed by the process and what we had witnessed.

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WAITING

A few people have asked me if I am prepared for the disappointment I might feel if this first attempt does not work. It is hard to know how to prepare for this but, after today at least, I appreciate that it will be for the best and indication of my body’s wisdom. Either way, something incredibly miraculous is taking place inside me as I write this and my job is simply to wait – a topic I might write about next month. 

I hope that you will join me on this journey.

Details about how you can do so can be found below.

Until next month’s update, when we will know whether or not I am pregnant, I leave you with a poem I recently wrote for the little one to be:

I have been praying to you for just over a year now.

Asking you to guide me if you wanted my help to come into this world.

What a crazy contract we have, dearest Beloved Being,

as your fathers call you.

 

I think I will call you BB for short.

 

I, who hope to have the privilege of feeling you manifest physically first.

Oh the outrageous joy of that initial, almost indiscernible flutter,

that steadily becomes a rolling feast in my belly!

Of having another’s heart beat, quite literally, in harmony with mine.

For nine full months, we trust.

 

How I will weep when you are released from my body and received into your parents’ arms!

And how, strangely perhaps, I long to feel so utterly bereft…

My body spent from being so thoroughly well used.

My soul and my heart stretched as wide as they can possibly be.

 

Dear imperceptible BB,

who exists nonetheless,

who has yet to be conceived outside of my womb,

whom l dream might come to make me bigger in every possible way…

Know that I will envelop you in warmth and cradle you lovingly,

so that so many more than just I

may experience the unimaginable gifts you can offer….

____________________________

NB: In the future monthly updates will be password protected on this site. To follow A Steady Bow over the months to come please visit https://www.backabuddy.co.za/champion/project/zintle-moko-5482201978217026531 and make a donation of any amount (modest donations will be appreciated as much as big ones). Please be sure to include your email address in the box that asks you too “Please enter a short message.” I will then send a password to you via email so that you can access the updates to come.

Kindly note that unnamed / anonymous donations will be difficult to track. If you have any questions, please send an email to leigh@soulfull.co.za 

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While we wait, you can join us in listening to the some of the music that the Dads and I are currently playing for BB:

  • Morning Sun by Melody Gardot
  • Lost Words Blessing by Spell Songs
  • We Might As Well Dance by Madeleine Peyroux
  • The Thula Project: An Album of South African Lullabies

As Graça Machel observed, Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s death marks, “the last of an extraordinarily outstanding generation of leaders that Africa birthed and gifted to the world.” Whilst this is true in many ways, a number of us have conscientiously been developing ourselves and the next generation of leaders and we are ready to step up.

Today’s emerging leaders are different though, for our times and our challenges are different. The era of big men, no matter how magnanimous, has indeed passed and each one of us, particularly those of us in South Africa, are being asked to answer the call. We who have stood in the shade of greats, sinking our roots and preparing ourselves, are now ready to provide the gift of our presence for others.

All around us we see evidence of rising unemployment, a country still riven by apartheid’s scars and many young people in particular feel climate anxiety acutely. These challenges are endemic and, frighteningly, potentially unsolvable and so I take heart from Václac Havel’s sage advice that, “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well. It is the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out.

“What is worth doing?” This is the question I ask myself, and have been asking for many years now, and I know I am not alone. In the early years when I was leading a free-to-student business school that I co-founded, I would travel with our students to the mountains where they engaged in a wilderness leadership programme and I would stay up and vigil when they undertook their overnight solos. What, I would ask the stars, was my role in their lives? What was mine to do? The answer came clearly, and has remained, simply, “Bear witness.”

When they returned to base camp in the morning, we gathered in a circle and these young people bravely – and often for the first time – shared their life stories. Almost all of them were characterised by abandonment in some way. Never knowing their father, growing up without their mother, having to raise siblings whilst still young themselves. It was agonising to hear, over and over again, how apartheid cleaved divisions not just between races but family members too. And so, over the years that have followed, my greatest joy has been to witness our students and graduates and the quality of parenting that they are offering their own children. This was never in the curriculum at TSIBA but somehow, to a tee, they know that their presence is important and foundational and they offer this abundantly. 

Each of us knows intuitively that it falls to us, individually and collectively, to tend what the generation before us could not offer or complete, and those of us who are adults now can and must stay in the room. Though being present may feel like a trite solution to the complex challenges that we face today, I believe that it’s the place to begin. Those of us who are parents now (and aunts and uncles and grandparents) are bequeathing a world with intractable dilemmas to our young people. We have not figured out how solve these challenges and in many ways we just seem to be digging a deeper hole for ourselves, hoping that a breakthrough technological solution, a decisive  leader or the next generation will offer us a way out. Maybe it’s time to focus less on fixing and doing and, as least as much, on listening and being? 

The scientist Gus Speth observed that, “I used to think that the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation.” Maybe it’s time to make a seat at the table for soul?

Generous presence is something that every one of us can offer.  We may not have answers or solutions but we can role model a way of being that our local leaders especially have shown us. How to break bread together, how to forgive, how to choose love over fear, how to build bridges and make the counter-intuitive choice, over and over again. We saw this so vividly in South Africa in the wake of riots in July 2021 that swept much of our country when, in the morning, ‘ordinary’ people would emerge unbidden with brooms and black bags and quietly begin cleaning up.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also demonstrated, quite acutely, that clever strategies or lone individuals cannot help us much and that connection and community are essential and life-giving. In this vein, in his recent article On Death and The Climate Crisis: We’ve woken the dragon and the adults have left the building, Peter Willis sketches out what a third way in between the perilous temptations of optimism and denialism could look like. He writes about the, “simple and intimate medicine” of  creating “accessible opportunities to sit with small-enough groups of one’s fellow citizens, share one’s own questions and fears and listen to them share theirs.”

As emerging leaders and elders, we need to support each other so that we can stand steady for our children. Especially when it feels as if the world is falling in on us we can, like Leonardo di Caprio’s character in the movie, “Don’t Look Up”, initiate calm, connected gatherings around our tables at home with family and friends and then begin extending our circle. This simple and ongoing stance of quietly holding and bearing witness, of not turning away from what feels frightening and still unresolved, of honouring our interconnectedness, is what feels worth doing, now more than ever.

Now that the last of our great trees has fallen there is no buffer between us and the Mystery of the Beyond. We need to step into this breach and begin preparing in earnest to be ancestors ourselves. We need to hold our children, our country and our world through increasingly turbulent times. We can do this. We are doing this, each and every one of us.

The gift of passing the midway point in our lives is the call, that becomes increasingly louder, to grow down. Whatever we have or have not achieved, we are on an undeniable downhill trajectory – and therein lies relief. We no longer have to pursue the relentless uphill slog, the pushing striving and achieving, for the pull now inexorably, is down. Our bodies attest to this. Like gathering rainclouds, we are being humbled, prepared to return to the Earth again. Exhaustion heightens our longing to lie down on the Earth, to connect with humus. Or, as Mary Oliver invites us, “to fall down into the grass… to kneel down in the grass… to be idle and blessed” and to, “let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

The invitation of midlife is to turn around and give up striving for our moment in the sun. To press pause on our ongoing, and often seemingly futile, attempts to meet the needs of so many around us and to listen instead for the wisdom that lies in darker places. In a recent commencement speech Bayo Akomalefe exhorted that, “It is time to go down, to explore our failings and their myriad intrasections as porous places, to experiment with approaching the more-than-human. Here’s a map: listen to your failures, don’t cover the cracks up, go deep in there. Whatever you do, don’t try to make the world a better place; instead, consider that the world might be trying to make you a better place. Listen.”

Indeed, there are maps, as ancient as Time itself. Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, assures us that, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek” and he offers us this model to assuage our trepidation:

Slide from Christine Nachmann’s Being with Sorrow course https://christinenachmann.net/workshops/

The times that we live in are deeply unsettling and grief provoking. Set in our ways as we are, we tend to consider what does not fall in line with our plans and hopes as hindrances, obstacles and maybe even tragedies. But what if we considered the disturbances, losses and failures that we encounter as invitations from our Soul? Love letters from the underground. Furtive yearnings to become wider, deeper and more generous than we can currently imagine? Would you turn around then? Would you be willing to grow down?

The word grief is derived from gravitas, it has substance and heft. It pulls us down and no one I know arrives at the midpoint of our lives without the weight of deep sadness and pain, though this is often hidden from view and even from ourselves. The sadness we carry can be for many reasons and in his gorgeous book ‘The Wild Edge of Sorrow’, Francis Weller outlines five gates to grief:
• 1. Everything We Love We Will Lose – To accept this fact, is to come to terms with Life
• 2. The Places Untouched by Love – These are the parts of ourselves that we cannot love or accept, the ways we have hurt and been hurt, the places where shame lives
• 3. The Sorrows of the World – The daily evidence and experience of social inequity, the plunder and pollution of the life-giving ecology, the desecration of Mother Earth
• 4. The Unrealised – This is what we expected or hoped for but did not experience for example, the unborn baby, the wilted relationship, the unrealised sense of purpose, belonging and connection
• 5. Ancestral and Collective Loss – These are the traumas that were too overwhelming or systemic for our forbearers to ‘metabolise’. The long shadows of addiction and abuse, the repressed feminine, apartheid, wars, genocide, slavery…

Most of us have spent our lives trying to outrun feelings of pain, to short circuit this, to numb ourselves, to dance around the edge of the terrifying abyss that these gates continuously and relentlessly open up. In our modern society, we are required by necessity to live cut off from each other and ourselves, striving mostly to “earn” our living and keep our children “happy”. But the vortex is inescapable. To be human, and to love, is to be pierced, to be crucified and Weller’s gates point to another reality where we are infinitely more connected. The pain within each of us calls us, re-minds us, that we are more intimately connected to our childhood self, to the Earth, our ancestors, the numinous and to each other than we have come to believe. We know this in our bones.

We are being called, by a brutal confrontation with our failures as a species especially, by the prospect of humankind’s demise, to recognise our kinship with all Life, with others (human and animal) and their children too. The Covid pandemic has illustrated this so powerfully to us all. In Bayo Akomalefe’s words these times call for subscendence, not transcendence. He observes that we find ourselves, “Caught up in patterns of behaving that prohibit and are insensitive to the imperatives of loss, of dying well, of losing ground, of becoming-other, of being disturbed, of being met and defeated by things that exceed us. We cannot risk smooth sailing from here. We cannot risk arriving; we can’t risk being saved if transformation is our longing. Our failures must be let into the room. Our work is intergenerational. To be saved is to restore the recognizable, and reinscribe the formula of the same. To notice the sacred, to sense the playful indeterminacy of things, one must be sufficiently pierced. It is only with the wounds granted to us by these shifts at large that we become stranger.”

Campbell counsels that what we are all seeking, “…is an experience of being alive so that our life experiences of the purely physical plane will have resonances with our innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.” To realise this, I propose that we need to be willing to stop climbing, pursuing “progress”, and the promise of perfection or salvation. Are we ready to turn around and embrace ourselves, as imperfect as we are? To admit defeat and be humbled enough to start learning again, adopting stars, butterflies, rain, children and heaven forbid – our enemies and those who provoke discomfort – as our unlikely teachers?

My mentor told me a beautiful story recently. He said he asked Nelson Mandela if he was able to pinpoint what it was that had changed him during all those lonely years in jail. How it was that he had come out of twenty-seven years in prison preaching such a magnanimous message of reconciliation? Apparently, the question surprised the great man, and he had to think for a while. And then Mandela responded, “It was my warder, a young white Afrikaner man. He epitomised everything that I despised, and I for him. In the beginning we butted heads on everything and then, one day, I turned to him and said there must be another way. Both of us found ourselves thrust into this difficult situation and we needed to get along. And over time, we became friends. He knew that what I missed most was contact with children and he would arrange for me to spend time with his. I changed him and he changed me.”

The call to grow down, to let the weight of our failures and our grief pull us to the ground and humble us – to accept the unacceptable – is a path of initiation. When we decide to turn around, to embrace our pain and that which seems impossible, we are undertaking an age-old rite of passage into the Underworld. We are stepping across the threshold into the unseen world, the terrain of Soul. Here we will be turned upside down and emptied. Here we will touch death and encounter Mystery and, for a long while, everything will seem strange. Nothing will make sense. Here the shattering will continue and, ultimately, we will be remade, but not as a seamless whole. We emerge rather as a mosaic, our cracks and scars visible on the outside now – a new and more beautiful artwork. A better place.

The Underworld can be a fearsome, terrifying world – the very place we have spent at least half of our lives avoiding – but if we turn around and let ourselves go there we discover, and return to our community with, the gifts that lie hidden deep within our Soul. We walk out of the darkness and our personal prison lighter, freer and wiser for having allowed ourselves to fall. We embody gravitas, the solidity of those who have journeyed to wild places and borne unimaginable things. Our eyes evidence the steadiness of one who is no longer afraid. We are now the ones who can hold the hands of others.

This is the path that I choose at the midpoint in my life and maybe you will, or already have, too. My wish for us, to paraphrase Bayo Akomolafe’s beautiful blessing, is that in so doing we may, “Come alive so richly that we would need to invent new words to describe the grace and gravity of (our) dancing in the village square. May (our) road be rough, and may the disturbance be (our) sanctuary.”

And so it is.

Leigh Meinert
05 July 2021

What does it mean to live a soulfull life? Something that a man in his nineties said to me has stayed with me ever since we talked over a year ago. His answer was, “It is living as though the unseen too is real.” He shared this after telling the story of his brother who committed suicide decades ago and how this influences his life and living still. What I took away from our conversation is that there are deeper currents that inform and sustain us in a fundamental way, but that we rarely acknowledge or talk about.

Underneath the surface of my life, the material world that seems so real and demands so much of my attention, there is another quieter, invisible animating force. Living with a sensitivity to what is unsaid and unseen but still very real – dreams, longings, difficult feelings, ghosts from the past or the future – and giving space for and expression to this, this is what soulfull living is for me.

One of the ways that I create this space is by writing a book. It’s a daunting and terrifying task and so I comfort myself that maybe my book is only for me. That for now I am teaching myself. The chapter I am currently working on is about spiritual practice and I’ve been writing about how for me this boils down to trusting that I am connected in unseen ways to deeper currents that I can rely on and rest in to. Or, as Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote, that “what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

“That’s lovely in theory,” my inner critic taunts me, “but do you practice this?” So, mindful that my consulting revenue had dried up with the COVID pandemic and that I was likely to be in a very real material pinch soon, I wrote this prayer on the 3rd of April 2020:

And on the 1st of May I started a meaningful new job. I am not a fan of new age rhetoric about ‘manifestation’ and ‘abundance’ and the point of sharing this story is not something pithy like “just pray/ believe and your material life will flow smoothly”. Rather, I write to encourage you to trust in the deeper currents that I know you feel too. Where is Life currently moving you? When you are quiet what knowing emerges? What is gently but persistently callling you?

For now, my daily practice in amidst a world that feels particularly chaotic and difficult and an inner critic that continues to berate me, is this extract from page 56 of Eckhardt Tolle’s little book called Practising the Power of Now.

“As you go about your life, don’t give 100% of your attention to the external world and to your mind. Keep some within. Feel the inner body even when engaged in everyday activities, especially when engaged in relationships or when you are relating with nature. Feel the stillness deep inside it. Keep the portal open. It is quite possible to be conscious of the Unmanifested throughout your life. You feel it as a deep sense of inner peace somewhere in the background, a stillness that never leaves you, no matter what happens out here. You become a bridge between the Unmanifested and the manifested, between God and the world. It is this state of connectedness with the Source that we call enlightenment.”

All too often I forget about the currents that flow underneath material circumstance and the choppiness of my mind talk. And then, in moments of grace and awareness in amidst the ordinariness of my day, I come back to resting there. Maybe you will join me?

Love

Leigh

18 July 2020

I shared these thoughts at an online memorial that I facilitated recently.

“Thich Nhat Hahn, the Vietnamese Zen Master, has observed, in his beautiful simple way, that there is, “No death, no birth, only transformation.” Similarly, grief invites us to experience that our relationship with the person that we are grieving has not come to an end, but rather to witness that is transforming. Denied now the ability to interact with their physical form we have no option when death visits us but to relate only with their essence, what Almaas calls the ‘pearl’ that each individual represents.

In the process of grieving I have found for myself that remembering is often not an active process, it is not something that I need to ‘do’. Rather re-membering happens all by itself.

We’re reminded of our loved one in a few bars of music, when we eat food that they enjoyed, when we see a smile like theirs. We find that we are also re-minded by the soft touch of the wind, the haunting beauty of a sunset, when we wake innocent in the morning and remember – all over again and oh-so-painfully – that their body is no longer on this earth like ours is. A mentor of mine recently said to me that when he is look for wisdom he reaches for the dictionary first and I love the etymology of the word re-membering. It implies that that a creative process is taking place within us during each of these moments. Our relationship with our loved one is being refashioned in a new and different way now. Our new relationship with them, their essence and the qualities they embodied is no longer one of duality, but ultimately of unity. The essence of our loved one can and does live within you now and increasingly, without our having to do anything about this, their essence becomes re-membered as part of us.

To walk this path, to accept grief’s invitation, it helps if we can keep our heart open but this is challenging. In our wider context too right now, I think that the question that is being posed to all of us is whether we stay open? Can we stay with our feelings, all of them, in these times? This invitation has never been more pertinent than now, when the world’s grief is so raw and so evident. Are we willing to keep our hearts open?

Can you allow your relationship with your loved one to be re-membered such that you take them back into the world with you after this gathering in a way that the qualities that they embodied, that are in you too, will shine through your body and your being even more powerfully now? Will you allow grief to move through you and do its transformative work? Will you say yes? Today, here in this service, and in the many moments of re-membering hereafter?

This, ultimately, is healing. This, I believe, is wholeness. This, undoubtedly, is love. Thank you.”

Leigh Meinert
26 May 2020

Convention tells us that the purpose of parenting is to guide, shape or mold the next generation and, correspondingly, there’s a wealth of books and courses that we can access on ‘parenting skills’. But what if we considered that our children shape us, more than we do them? What if we opened ourselves up to this possibility and the idea that we have been gifted with unique souls who will inspire and stretch us the most? And actually, what if it’s not really about growing up at all, but growing down that’s the greatest challenge that’s facing us today? How can we reclaim our innocence and the wisdoms our children have to teach us?

For all these reasons, I am drawn to explore the notion of parenting as a spiritual path. So many parents (as well as grandparents, aunts, uncles and godparents) speak with reverence about the overwhelming capacity for love that the arrival of a new soul opens them up to and I believe that parenting can be an incubator for the daily, hourly, minute-by-exquisite-minute experience and practice of love. Parenting, and the homes that we create for our family, can be the protected environment in which a love that is personal and touching and real can grow, and as a consequence of that growth, develop in us our highest capabilities as loving human beings.

The path of a parent invites us to explore love, to be love, to stand under love and in so doing to understand Love/ God/ Allah/ our Buddha Nature/ your Creator/ the Universe and what is most important in the world in ways that are fresher, deeper, more grounded and of the earth. Some refer to this as ‘the path of the householder’, which the author David Foster Wallace describes beautifully in his commencement speech called ‘This Is Water’ when he shares that, “the really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline and being able to truly care about other people. And to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad, petty little unsexy ways every day.”

In Vedic culture, the spiritual path is called Sadhana and its ultimate goal is to transform our awareness from separation to unity for in unity we perceive only Love, express only Love and are only Love. There is recognition that different styles suit different personalities, for example for those who are intellectually inclined there is the path of knowledge, which is known as Gyana yoga. For those who are more outwardly motivated, there is the path of action, or Karma yoga. And for those who are more devotional there is the path of worship, often to a guru, known as Bhakti yoga. All of these are paths that help us get beyond our individual egos and realise enlightenment which I think of as the experience of the essential interconnectedness of all things or what Christians call, “the peace that passes all understanding.”

When we become parents we are committing, whether we recognise it at the time or not, to an on-going practice of devotion, to getting our ego out of the way, and to a daily, consistent practice of compassion and loving kindness. As a harried parent, who struggles to find time for all the ‘good things’ I feel should be practicing like prayer, mediation, (physical) yoga and soothing walks in nature, there is deep relief that my daily, mundane chores and responsibilities can be and are my most meaningful opportunities to experience God and godliness.

I use the words Love, God, Allah, Buddha Nature, Creator and Universe interchangeably and for some this may seem glib, but I do so deliberately because I want to invite you to consider and engage the God of your own understanding and deepen your relationship with this in the process of walking this path with me. Perhaps the word God does not work for you, perhaps you are an atheist or an agnostic. This exploration is for you too if you are interested in personal depth and crafting a way to live in the world in a way that is rich in meaning and connection.

I refer to this approach as soulfull living and I am inspired by the work of the psychologist Thomas Moore, who observes that we intuitively know that soul has to do with genuineness and depth when we say that certain music has ‘soul’ or a person is ‘soulful’. When we look closely, he writes, “We see that soul is tied to life in all its particulars – good food, satisfying conversation, genuine friends and experiences that stay in the memory and touch the heart…. Soul is revealed in attachment, love and community, as well as in retreat on behalf of inner communing and intimacy.” Soul, Moore heeds, is also messy and it is not linear. Soul often takes us places that can feel dark and uncomfortable. Things we’d rather not look at. Parenting does this powerfully.

So soulfull parenting embraces the highs and lows, and welcomes the challenges that ‘bringing forth’ (the meaning of the word Latin word parent, which derived from the verb ‘parere’) entails in particular. Soulfull parenting seeks to make fresh meaning from the challenges and torments that are inherent in parenting, along with the highs and the joys, and help us become richer, fuller people in the process. When I speak about parenting I am speaking to anyone who loves or has loved a child, whether you bore them or not, and whether they still live on this earth or not. I will never, never forget how, shortly after her daughter was stillborn at 39 weeks, my dear friend said to me, “I felt like I came so close to being admitted to the club.” No, parenting is not exclusive. If you have loved anyone deeply, if you have created and nurtured and cared for and if you long to do more of this, I am writing these words for you.

This introduction so far has considered the first principle of what I call soulfull parenting, namely that parenting can be a spiritual path that provides us with ample opportunities for practice if we choose to see our experiences in this way. The other principles are:

#2 Acorns – our children come to us complete

#3 Healing – our first responsibility is to ensure that our soul is well and full

#4 Witnessing – our primary job is to be present to our children

#5 Learning – we need to embrace failure in our lives and with our children

#6 Conversation – how we engage our children is key

#7 Co-Parenting – we need to nurture a village

In her book The Spiritual Child, Lisa Miller PhD explains how, unlike other lines of development, such as language or cognition, the innate spiritual attunement of children (for example their remarkable capacity for wonder and easy connection to nature and animals) begins whole and does not require development, so much as careful nurturing. Science, she reports, is beginning to appreciate that spirituality (which is defined in the American Journal of Psychiatry as a personal relationship with the transcendent, or an inner sense of living relationship to a higher power) exists as a human capacity, just like EQ and IQ, and is the single biggest factor in our children’s health and their ability to thrive, a ballast against the rise of dis-eases like anxiety and depression.

This growing body science of about spirituality is also enabling us to see adolescence in a new and more helpful, hopeful light too. This universal development surge, previously viewed as a fraught passage toward physical and emotional maturity is now understood as more fully to also be a journey of essential spiritual search and growth. Furthermore, parents and children share a parallel development arc in which a child’s need and yearning for spiritual exploration coincides with a similar quest phase in midlife and our shared search can be mutually awakening and supportive. Our children, Dr. Miller writes, “can be our impetus for spiritual discovery, our muses or guides and at times the source of illumination.”

Miller and her fellow researchers are advocates for consciously nurturing a young person’s innate spirituality which can, as she observes, “otherwise so easily be eroded in the crush of a narrowly material culture.” Currently our society values growing up and education focuses on our heads almost exclusively and this feels wrong and rushed to me, and maybe it feels wrong to you too. I believe it is time to start talking about growing down, back into the earth and the messiness of real life and parenting and to find meaning therein. Like acorns and seeds, we have to dig down into the dark, fecund soil/ soul and establish roots before we can emerge and stand tall in the sun.

Ultimately, I think that Khalil Gibran, who never had children of his own, expresses the tenets of what I call soulfull parenting best, in his piece called ‘On Children’ in the book The Prophet. He writes;

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,

for they have their own thoughts.

Your may house their bodies but not their souls,

for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,

which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them,

but seek not to make them like you.

For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

Your are the bows from which your children

as living arrows are sent forth.

The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,

and He bends you with His might

that His arrows may go swift and far.

Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;

For even as He loves the arrow that flies,

so He loves the bow that is stable.

Indeed, soulfull parenting is about learning to become an increasingly stable bow. To identify and show up as Witnessing Presence and Unconditional Love, sometimes fiercely so, in the lives of the people that we love the most – and, from this centre and base of practice, to begin to enlarge our circle beyond our homes, out into a world that sorely needs this healing.

Leigh Meinert

8 November 2019

I wrote this short piece before Uyinene’s murder rocked SA and the group #ImStaying was created and my thoughts and feelings have remained the same…

Recently I found myself explaining to a young black friend of mine that white South Africans are feeling especially fearful at the moment. Many are thinking earnestly about leaving and making a life elsewhere. Many are joining groups like ‘SA Women Fight Back’. “Really?” she asked with genuine curiosity. “I had no idea”. She said this as she held her six month old son in her arms whose father had been brutally murdered when her baby was just two weeks old. Trauma, we discussed, is the water that most black people swim in daily and white people, like myself, only dip in to now and again. I don’t say this with judgement, but only to share what I have been thinking about…

Twenty years ago, we embarked on a journey of healing, led by wise spiritual elders. The stories we heard jarred us, opened our hearts and gave us a mirror that reflected our nation’s soul. But that journey got interrupted. It was put on pause and we have not been back to look under the carpet. Indeed, the mound has only growing bigger.

During the Truth and Reconciliation process, heartfelt stories were shared and listened to. Often deep listening can be transformative, can be enough for bringing what was hidden away, what we do not want to look and engage with, out in to the light of day. When we listen well we are not hiding or fading or fixing each other’s pain but simply and quite powerfully allowing it to be. There is healing in this and people like Father Michael Lapsley have continued with story sharing circles at the Institute for the Healing of Memories. How potent is the symbol of this man with metal pincers for hands doing the work of ministry? Of Nelson Mandela wearing a Springbok #5 jersey? Having tea with Tannie Betsie Verwoed? These acts are and were deliberate, radical and truly brave.

Many white people in particular speak despairingly about a lack of leadership in our country but it was not only our country but our generation that witnessed what transformational leadership looks like and how it responds. Leaders like Amy Biehl’s parents who could see the anguish in the eyes of their daughter’s killers, who felt it and undertook to address that. Healing comes when we resist the urge to turn away from pain, our own or others, and do the counter-intuitive thing. Healing comes when we don’t separate ourselves, when we stop pointing fingers and look within to determine what is being called of us. The experience of witnessing leaders (be they well-known names or ordinary people who gave testimony at the TRC) who did this, over and over again, is still visceral for us. Like the memory of the day we watched Nelson Mandela walk free and felt the stirrings of hope.

How we long to realise freedom in the country that we love so dearly. To be released from the shackles of pain and guilt, fear and despair that we feel with great intensity at the moment. This is what shamans like Johnny Clegg enabled for white people in particular. I believe our leaders have shown us a way and it begins with listening deeply to each other. Not to apportion blame, to fix or to remedy but to feel and release and in so doing heal and transmute. It’s both extraordinarily hard and very simple at the same time. It is, I believe, the work of our generation and there has never been a better time to begin again in earnest.

It is my work and I must own this, for if I don’t, our collective pain will be transferred to my children and their children, like knowledge in the blood, as Professor Jonathan Jansen wrote. Let’s not fight back, let’s love back. Let’s not speak back, let’s listen. Let us say enough is enough, and begin with ourselves. We who have been privileged to witness some of the finest leaders this world has ever known are being called, each and every one of us, to take on the mantle of leadership and become agents of healing. Fighting, fleeing or simply staying frozen are not options for me. I know what I choose. Will you join me?

 

Leigh Meinert

29 August 2019

This talk is inspired by a quote that I read a few months ago and that has remained with me. It is attributed to an American advisor on climate change called Gus Speth who said,“I used to think that the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

Today I want to share with you my growing conviction that the ecological crisis that we are surrounded by, and that we have helped to create, is calling to us. That the chaos and the fear contain the seed of invitation to each one of us, a spiritual invitation. And I don’t believe it’s a moralistic invitation, laden with shoulds and shoudn’ts and guilt. No, today I want to talk about a revolution of the soul. 

Revolution comes from the Latin word ‘evolvere’which can be understood as an unrolling. The word was first recordeddescribing a ‘wheeling’ manoeuvre. So re-volution means to circle back, to come back to. To arrive, as TS Elliot wrote, where we started and know the place for the first time.

This knowing that I am talking about is not an intellectual knowing. The invitation that I believe we are being offered, called to in a visceral way, is to re-orientate to soul to and soil, and in many respects I believe these two are the same thing. As I tell my children, we are made up, I believe, of an earth part and an angel part. When  I die my chattering monkey mind will disappear but my body will live on in the soil as nutrients and my soul will drop back in to collective consciousness, the ocean of being. What bliss. 

Sadly, though we are so disconnected from these two essential and enduring elements which make up, I believe, our most real nature. Our society values growing up and education focuses on our heads almost exclusively. For these reasons it is time, I believe, to start talking, about growing down, back in to the earth. 

Soil is something practical that we can all feel and experience and as I talk today I want to invite you to do exactly this. So I am handing out a gift for each of you now, it’s a small pot of soil and I want to invite you, if you are feeling brave, to feel and connect with this pocket of soil as I talk today. You might get a bit messy and dirty, but that’s ok. 

Soul is harder to define than soil or revolution, and so I want to spend some time with this word. I prefer the word soul to spirit, and I love Thomas Moore’s explanation of the two in his beautiful book, Care of the Soul. Spirit is often associated with light and aspiration, a Higher Power, salvation, reaching, cleansing. Soul is altogether different. For one it’s far more earthy. We intuitively know that soul has to do with genuineness and depth when we say that certain music has ‘soul’ or a person is ‘soulful’. When we look closely at the image of soulfulness, Thomas Moore says, we see that soul is tied to life in all its particulars – good food, satisfying conversation, genuine friends and experiences that stay in the memory and touch the heart. Soul is revealed in attachment, love and community, as well as in retreat on behalf of inner communing and intimacy.

Soul is also messy and it is not linear. Soul often takes us places that can feel dark and uncomfortable. Things we’d rather not look at. Memories and feelings we’ve locked away. And I think that is what the climate crisis is asking of us. When soul is neglected, Thomas Moore writes, it does not just go away – it appears symptomatically in obsessions, addictions, violence and loss of meaning. No wonder that depression and anxiety seem to be the scourge of our time. No wonder nature mimics our illness and dis-ease.

Our temptation, Moore continues, is to isolate these symptoms and complex feelings – as a scientist would. To eradicate them one by one. But the root problem, Moore contends, is that we have lost our wisdom about the soul, and round about the same time I would say as we lost our connection to soil. Put another way, as the mythologist Dr. Martin Shaw wrote recently, “If you don’t attend to your soul’s vitality with intent, then suppressed it will run you ragged. They are not above catastrophe to get your attention” Attending to the soul though is not something our scientists and politicians typically know how to do. But you do, and I do. It’s that still small voice that is deep within each one of us.

So I ask you today, are you running thin? Do you feel ragged and worn out most of the time? What is calling to you and what do you yearn for? How is your soul calling you? Where is your soul calling you? What is difficult to look at? What might your dreams be telling you? It’s so easy to be overwhelmed by the doomsday scenarios and to imagine what we as individuals without power and connections could possibly do or contribute to alter the course of our race, let alone our own lives.  We just want someone to tell us what to do, give us the plan and the ten point steps and we’ll do them, we promise. 

But maybe doing is not the answer. Maybe that’s actually our greatest problem. That we’ve become a race of human doings, who don’t even do doing so well. Just look were all our fancy strategies and plans have gotten us so far. And in our rush, rush, rush, do, do, do we reach for the most convenient solutions and these are never good for Mother Earth.  Maybe it’s time to pause amidst the madness and listen in a different way….

Recently I heard someone observe that it is arrogant to say that the Earth is dying, it will outlive humans of course – but we humans might well be dying out. Can we sit with that? Not just our own dying, but that of humankind? And if we sit with it for long enough, what might that move us to do? How would we be with each other? The world? We all know that because things are mortal and limited they are more precious. So let’s imagine for a while that humankind’s chapter was ending. Can you sit with that? With your dying, and your children’s and your grandchildren and maybe after that nothing. Just a returning to the soil and soul and nothing after that. No future on Earth, no children for your children’s children. 

How would we engage with other humans if we knew that all of us, collectively were terminally ill? If we knew we were all dying, together? How might that open our hearts to our fellow beings? How might we then engage with the earth? How might it seem all the more precious to us if we knew that we would die one day, but all humankind would be extinct, and soon? I am not saying that will be are but I am asking you to follow the thought experiment with me and to feel the soil in your hands as you do so. To love this tiny patch of dark, fermenting matter as your soul and your body longs to be loved.

This is the revolution of the soul that I am talking about. In these times it is a radical act to eschew busyness now and again, to simplify our lives where and how we can, to lie fallow and just do nothing, to turn within. To hold anxiety and fear within us and dirt under our fingernails and allow it to be.  It means at times muting the deafening voices of the world, the media, and society and to listen keenly to that still small voice within. What is it saying? What does it yearn for? Even more radically perhaps, when you commune with nature and animals what do they tell you? 

No, this is not a time for doing. It is a time for keen listening, to our souls and to the soil. Humankind has become so obsessed with the rational but I don’t believe we can think our way out of our problems through acts of human cleverness anymore. Dropping the salvational fantasy, Thomas Moore says, frees us up to the possibility of self-knowledge and self-acceptance, which are the very foundation of soul. War on poverty, war on drugs, climate change activism – this relentless do, do, do, fight, fight, fight is only making the problem worse it seems and those of us who are not at the frontlines of doing are left feeling like we want to flee and stick our heads in the sand.

But there is another way, and our souls can guide us. Can you and I volunteer to be at the frontline of feeling? Of being? Even if only for a few minutes a day? Can we accept the mess? Can we get our hands dirty? Can we open our hearts and keep them open just a little more every day? Can we turn and look within, at what is gnawing us and driving us to live such madly busy disconnected lives? Can we be pain without moving to hide it or fade it or fix it? Our own pain, others’ pain, Mother Earth’s? 

And will this solve anything? Probably not, and that’s ok too. This is not about solving, which is an intellectual pursuit of our minds. Our intellect wants clean answers but our souls live in the grey areas – the dawn and the dusk – and our souls intuit that grander and more mysterious is at play, perhaps. Will we get swallowed up by all the grief in the world and overwhelmed again? For moments maybe, but not forever. 

I have been inspired for example by the story of Greta Thunberg, the sixteen year old who is currently gracing the likes of the Pope and Barack Obama with her humble presence. At about the age of eight, when she first learned about climate change, she was shocked that adults did not appear to be taking the issue seriously. It was not the only reason she became depressed a few years later, but it was a significant factor. Of that time she said, “I kept thinking about it and I just wondered if I am going to have a future. And I kept that to myself because I’m not very much of a talker, and that wasn’t healthy. I became very depressed and stopped going to school.” Her parents described her as morose and introverted. Their child was slipping away with them. 

Greta felt her feelings, she did not shy away from her depression and she did not accept the glib answers her parents and the adults gave her. She listened and she read and she recounts being moved by students from the Parkland school in Florida, who walked out of classes in protest against the US gun laws that enabled the massacre on their campus. After a record heatwave in northern Europe and forest fires that ravaged swathes of Swedish land up to the Arctic, Thunberg decided to go it alone. Day one was 20 August 2018. She started a school strike for climate change equipped only with a hand painted cardboard sign. Some of you will be aware of the global impact that she is having 363 days later, addressing Houses of Parliament and crowds in their thousands. Astonishing for a young girl who was not “very much of a talker’.

How might you be moved, if you, like Greta, went within to find your own answers? My point today is that I don’t think we’re going to solved the global crisis even if all of us do the things that we should do – like going vegan, and walking or cycling everywhere, giving up flying and planting trees like mad – and it’s unlikely that we’d end up doing those things en mass for long because right now they feel mostly like a long list of shoulds and we all know how diets go when we’re not actually connecting with our body and what feels good for us. 

We need a revolution of the soul because we cannot think our way out of this current crisis. We also cannot guilt trip or lecture each other. That will never be sustainable. The only way through I believe is through and that means to feel, to let go of needing answers and to spend a little less time doing and a bit more time being and communing  with our souls and with soil. The answers we need lie there in the dark, slightly hidden from us right now.

The good news is that you can feel and be in the midst of the concrete jungle too. I recently heard a beautiful story from an animal communicator called Anna Breytenbacht who was confined to a hospital bed. The nearest window looked out on a carpark but she could not even see through that. She could only hear the sounds that came through the window and see an occasional gust of wind as it played with a spider’s web on the sill. She became attuned to the sounds of different birds at different times of day and the stories these had to tell her. And as light fell and the room became dark she imagined the clouds changing colour, or growing, or fading away. Anna spent that week in a hospital bed in deep and real communion with nature, and with her soul.

Like seeds in soil, we have to go dig down in to the dark, fecund soil and establish roots before we can emerge and stand tall in the sun. This is the essential wisdom that I am inviting you to contemplate today. My friend and teacher Robyn Sheldon wrote about it in this way when she shared as follows, “I am cracking open at the moment, and if I don’t choose to do so, like a seed beginning to sprout, then I am hammered open because the earth and all of us as its inhabitants are going through such a tremendous energy shift right now. To open and expand is initially an involution into my core, through all the wounds and the cracks and the painful places into the deepest essence of dark unknowing, into the stillness of being and back out into the dance.”

And so, in this spirit, I want to give you two more gifts today. A seed and an invitation to plant this and have it represent a very personal wish that comes from your heart and your soul. What do you want to nurture and water from this day forth? Not because you think you should, but because your soul longs for this quality. Is it silence, simplicity, grief, time in nature, juiciness, abandon or love maybe? What will be your intention when you plant your seed?

Perhaps one of my favourite poets, Mary Oliver, said it best when she wrote, 

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

We humans have become so disconnected but there is hope, we still belong in the family of things. The soft animal of our body can guide us, soil and soul have messages for us. We belong and we can return if we are willing to circle back to soul and feel soil. That’s the invitation that I believe we are being offered and it’s harsh and exciting – like the wild geese’s call. I feel it in these times and I hope you do too. 

Thank you.

Leigh Meinert

Talk for the Cape Town Unitarian community

19 August 2019

 

In the midst of the drought-fuelled angst that has seized Cape Town, I found this meditation, following a flash storm in Cape Town in February 2017, refreshing. Even thought “Day  Zero” may have been “defeated”, my prayer and commitment is that my family and I will not forget the many precious lessons that drought has taught us….

Ever since Cape Town found itself gripped with the prospect of being the first major city in history to run out of running water, I’ve found myself becoming a traumatized water ‘worrier’. I literally have to stop watching a TV show if the protagonist is taking too long washing their hands!

I’ve gone from blissful unawareness, to brutal awake-ness when it comes to miracle of water actually coming out of a tap. The closer we come to what sounds like the next Hollywood Blockbuster… Day Zero… I’ve been amazed to see how much I can achieve with just 37 litres of water a day. A full 50 less than the initial 87 litre challenge and 13 less than the current quota of 50 litres per person. We reuse, recycle and repurpose every drop in our house, and amazingly we still smell pretty decent.

Last night when the heavens opened – or should I say squeezed out a few hours of drizzle – I had a moment around midnight that I will never forget. We were both out in the rain, armed with buckets and jugs as we scooped out precious litres of rainwater being caught in large black storage bins under the two available gutters at our house. On either side of the house, we dashed with bucket after bucket to store it in our pool. (I have to admit that I was pretty excited that I getting a fully body work out in the process.) A rather classic moment, was mid scoop, looking up and seeing my neighbour in what can only be described as a flesh-coloured onesie – doing the very same thing next door. Capetonians definitely weren’t going to the let the rain go to waste!

With my arm immersed in water, scooping as fast as I could – I suddenly realised that this is actually how humans are meant to live. In that moment I was totally present. Totally reliant on nature and the gift she was bestowing on us. Totally involved in a natural cycle of life and using it to guarantee my survival. Instead of sitting indoors listening to rain while we watched Netflix, this drought forced us outside to make the most of the moment before it passed.

It made me think about the 42 years of rain that I have never appreciated. The oceans of water that have flowed off every roof I’ve sheltered under and not been harvested. The utter disconnect I’ve lived in, because if I want water, I just switch on a tap. And yet here I was, dressed like Bridget Jones on a very bad day, catching every drop that I could.

In the space of 2 hours and 8 binfuls of water, we harvested over 800 litres, and I can honestly say it felt like one of my most notable accomplishments. And that is what got me thinking…
Since this crisis started unfolding, I’ve watched amazed at how quickly people make a plan to not only thrive, but survive. There are gutter socks to channel water to your pool. Water from air machines. Filter systems for groundwater. And crazy people like us using what we have to catch what we can with what we have.

The conclusion I’m coming to is that convenience not only robs us of creativity, it makes us complacent and it makes us unaware. The inconvenience of Cape Town running out of water has literally woken people up. Woken them up to water as a resource. Woken them up to how much they waste. Woken them up to ingenious ways to save it. The inconvenience of this crisis has woken us up to our creative potential to solve the problem.

Now that makes me look at my life in a whole new light… Maybe I should be avoiding the convenient options now that I understand that they potentially rob me of being fully present to my life? Ready-made meals disconnect me from my food. Easy entertainment robs me to actively contributing to my own fun. Quick fixes, stop me from building lasting solutions and learning new ways of doing things.

The opportunity life is now offering me is to actively seek out inconvenience. To say no to plastic bags and remember to carry my own where I go. To choose loose vegetables rather than ready packed ones and actually have a moment to interact with my food choices before mindlessly throwing someone else’s selection in my cart. To graciously decline a straw and pull out my own travel one that I keep on hand when needed.

My midnight on my knees in the rain, water-harvesting escapade, seems to have woken me up to the gift that inconvenience might bring to my life. I know they say that necessity is the mother of invention, but last night I learned that it also is the mother of being in the moment. That leads me to believe, that the more ‘inconvenient’ I make my life, the more creative and connected I will be in each moment. The more fun I’ll have working out how to stock my home packaging free. The more inspired I’ll be to see how to inventively make every drop of water count. The more creative I’ll be in planning fun and connected moments in my day, rather than clicking a button so that they can be done for me.

When our dams are full again, and this crazy time is hopefully a distant memory, all I can hope for is that never again will we forget how precious water is. I hope that we’ll keep saving it and cherishing it, and each actively playing our part in taking daily responsibility to have it in our lives. Because if we continue to treat resources like they are expendable, one day they will be. But, if we find small ways to inconvenience ourselves with the things we take for granted, then all going well, we’ll keep being creative in protecting precious resources this planet gifts us with.

 Verity Price