Making Repair

by Maria Theresa Maggi on February 12, 2019

Alder Branch with Hummingbird pastel life memory sketch by MTM for blog

Each morning before breakfast as I do my simple yoga and meditation routine, the branches of an old alder keep me company outside the bedroom window. From this alder, which leans toward the street, I have learned continued patience with my right side, the cerebral palsy side, as it continues its journey of balance on one foot in tree pose. In the summer this tree is lush with green and much of its architecture is hidden. But in Winter all those leaves have fallen into the salal bushes and the culvert below those and I can see its attenuated and stark branches reaching out toward the new daylight. Often, in exactly the same place it looks to me as if a single dried up leaf has curled itself around a tiny branch and held on for dear life. It seems to be the only one that hasn’t fallen to the ground.

 

On New Year’s Eve, I sat around my old kitchen table with 3 of my favorite friends here at the coast. Dinner was over and we were snacking on my biscotti and anise cookies and fresh persimmon and grapes one of my neighbors brought. I don’t remember how we got onto the topic, but I found myself telling the story of my encounter on the sidewalk with a black man in Portland who yelled at me for what he saw as me trying to make him invisible when I tried to step around him while he stared at his cell phone in the middle of the sidewalk. (You can read a detailed account of that experience in On The Street.) No matter how I tried to convey the healing energy between this man and I when I understood the societal truth of what he was saying to me and thus responded with a heartfelt “I’m sorry,” two of my friends got stuck on the fact that he had called me a bitch for seeming to try to ignore him. They were insistent that because of their own experiences in abusive relationships, that they themselves would not have allowed that. They felt I should have spoken up, stood up for myself. One said she wouldn’t allow anyone to talk to her like that.

Now as some of you have read here on the blog in posts like I Knew I Had To Go Deep, I have my own experiences of surviving abuse. I spent very intense years of my 30’s working with the consequences of that. Even so, I couldn’t get my friends to see that defending myself against offensive language wasn’t the purpose in my exchanges with  this man. The point for me had been that I had understood what he must have felt like day in and day out, being treated as if he were invisible, or worse, as if he were a dangerous criminal, and how my actions had triggered that multiplied many times over, no matter what my intention might have been. The instant my heart truly understood that, the only meaningful thing I could say in the moment was that heartfelt, “I’m sorry.” Because, as I said in the post On The Street, I was sorry this was so much the state of affairs for black men on the streets of Portland and many other places.

My friends, both compassionate and liberal teachers, dug in. They couldn’t see how where I was coming from was a position of compassion that freed me from fear or outrage in that moment and gave me strength. They both said what they would have done was  set him straight–that sticking up for a woman’s right to be treated with dignity overrode everything else. I repeated that for me it wasn’t about that, it was about acknowledging the glaring and dangerous racist injustice of how he must have been treated in our society over and over. Beyond that, I wasn’t sure what else to say. And then the 3rd friend at the table, a therapist, spoke up. She said to them, “I understand what you are saying about standing up for yourself and how you are spoken to, but for Maria, that wasn’t the point. For her, the point was making repair.”

When our therapist friend articulated this phrase, “making repair,” I suddenly felt understood in a way I could not find the words to express on my own. “Yes!” I exclaimed. “And THANK YOU!! That’s exactly what I was doing.”

What I love so much about this phrase is its literalness. I am, or I see myself as, a “maker”–of pieces of writing, pieces of art, piecing of quilts and of course, food. I am happiest when I am making something, whatever it is. This choice of words so “got” what I was trying to do that I even googled it to see if it’s some kind of psychological term I may have missed, but Google only coughed up the literal idea of making repairs to your home or rented space.

We were all quiet for a moment, taking the wisdom of our therapist friend’s words in. Then one of my other friends at the table suddenly looked at the time on her phone and said, “Oh my goodness! I’m so sorry, I have to go.” She had told us at the beginning of our dinner that she would have to leave around this time to meet another friend who needed a place to stay for the night.

Though she protested that we not break up the evening because she had to leave, that was pretty much the end of it. The other two friends stayed to help me clear the table and wash the dishes. So we never got around to fully processing our different views of this experience or what we were thinking. I sometimes wonder what else might have been said or gained or lost if we had.

I was very glad, however, that I had not responded defensively to their objections, or felt my throat tighten up because I was not understood. I was able to stay in my own conviction without defensiveness or outrage. Upon reflection, it took me back to something very wise a co-op employee I was friendly with in Portland said to me in the 24 hours following my encounter and apology to the man in question: “maybe it was a good thing it was you he picked to yell that to. At least you knew what he was talking about and didn’t react defensively or as if he was crazy, even if he was.”

Without realizing it until much much later, though I understood it literally and agreed with it, I kind of glossed over the import of  what she meant. It just didn’t occur to me that these two reactions, defensiveness or dismissal, would have been far more common. In fact, I was a little confused she saw it as exceptional.

In one draft of this post I struggled with paragraph after paragraph trying to make a transition into how insidiously systemic racism is imbedded in how all of us behave and respond, even if we do not engage in openly aggressive racist tactics and behavior–(and how I myself, despite responding the way I did in the moment, still had to process  some feelings about how this man didn’t see me as the friendly person I thought of myself as, or  know my other heartfelt connections with my black neighbors, or my years of study and mentoring in academia around issues of cultural diversity and retention of students of color, etc.  As I wrote in On The Street, “About a couple of blocks away I started wondering if I should have explained that I thought he was busy and didn’t want to interrupt him. In fact, part of me  foolishly wanted to run after him and tell him so. But I also realized the wisest part of me knew to keep it simple and from the heart. The I’m sorry I got out was all that was necessary to be witness to the general and particular pain he was evoking, and dissipate the rising negative energy.”

Nevertheless, that didn’t mean I didn’t have to process my own fear that I might run into him again and not recognize him fast enough–and what if he followed through on his threats?–so there was a lot of second guessing I had to identify that came from that place of white fragility, and process it for what it was as best I could. As I thought about the best way to articulate all this here, I deleted sentence after sentence because I just couldn’t figure out how not to sound defensive– or as if I am holier than thou–the very thing I was trying to write about the importance and the difficulty of avoiding, while till speaking the truth.

But then, I came upon these two women on the internet–living examples of very matter of fact ways of doing what my friend called “making repair.”  The first one to cross my path was Dr. Rupa Marya, a hospitalist and associate professor for the University of California San Francisco Medical Center, who describes the prevalence of racism in our medical system as reported in this article and video. By recounting her own experience, she inspired me to continue matter of fact ways to question and check myself and what my assumptions might be, and how to deflate the situation when another person is offended at the mention of racism.

Next, the same wise friend who coined the term “making repair” for me on New Year’s Eve, told me about an episode of the podcast On Being, where Krista Tippet interviews black poet and playwright Claudia Rankine on her writing, her life and conversations she has about race and racism. Taken from her own words, the podcast is titled “How Can I Say This So We Can Stay In This Car Together?” The matter of factness about the reality of racism and the astute and beautifully told particulars her poet’s mind brought to light really inspired and resonated with me as I strive to become more aware of more ways to help make repair, and less stuck in not knowing what to say, especially to other white people who don’t see race as impacting their lives. Her recounting of a conversation she had with a Trump supporter who was the driver assigned to bring her to a graduation where she had been asked to speak is powerful, as is her account of singing with a white man she sat next to on a plane and how she was able to enlighten him about why telling her “I don’t see color,” was not a very good thing to say.

 

What does this all have to do with the alder tree? It turns out that so called dead leaf is actually a little hummingbird, who perches in it many mornings. Until I actually saw this, I would think rather crazy things to myself like, “Oh, that leaf is gone,” and on other mornings, Hmm, now it’s back again, but not in quite the same place?” only half paying attention and never questioning or examining how this didn’t make sense.

But one morning, there was something about the leaf that made it look, well, not like a leaf at all. By this time I was kneeling on the mat, looking up out the window, and that gave me a different vantage point, one that made me realize what I was looking at was a little hummingbird! He or she was sitting up there waiting for a turn at the feeder hanging on my front porch. I was delighted to be so enlightened, and laughed out loud. On our morning walk, I thought about trying to draw it, possibly for a way to illustrate this post, and when we got back, I took my sketch book into the bedroom to get a feel for the branches and begin.

Much to my surprise, the hummingbird came and alighted on the branch. I smiled and moved closer to get a better look, peering through the open blinds that I didn’t draw into the sketch. As I approached the window, for a split second, the hummingbird turned her head and looked at me–I saw a flash of eye and the bright reddish feather sand brighter green on the side of her head. And then she looked away, only showing the dark green of an old leaf, before flitting off to the feeder.

I think of this experience as an image for how what I tell myself shapes what I see and what I believe to be true. As long as I was convinced I couldn’t see a hummingbird anywhere but at the feeder, all I saw was a dead leaf hanging on after its time had passed, getting blown away, and then mysteriously reappearing. I didn’t even pay enough attention to sort out these contradictions and why they didn’t make any sense, or might be robbing me of a greater sense of connectedness and wonder with my natural surroundings, attentive to them though I perceive myself to be.

I hope this little hummingbird’s visits will remind me that I don’t always know what I’m looking at, even when I think I do, and that my instinct to “make repair” when I do see something anew is not a one time deal, but a life’s work in progress.  Every day I live I need to be open to find more ways to enlarge that impulse, to expand it, to embrace it in context when I recognize it, especially in ways that help dismantle perceptions and practices that dehumanize or threaten those of us who do not have white skin. As we all know, those situations can be charged and fraught, but I am encouraged to keep trying to build, as Claudia Rankine so aptly puts it, my “white stamina” for those conversations that make it possible for us to “stay in this car together.” I  feel blessed to have had as many of these as I’ve had already, and look forward to growing into more.

Maria (moonwatcher)

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In Tandem

by Maria Theresa Maggi on January 30, 2019

"Approaching Sunlight," chalk pastel memory sketch, by Maria Theresa M

“Approaching Sunlight,” chalk pastel memory sketch, by Maria Theresa Maggi

Last weekend at the winter market in the Lincoln County Fairgrounds building, a woman approached me, Cotton and the friend we came with, as I was paying for a hand knit hat. I was turned away from her to hand my card to the carftswoman, but I heard the familiar question, “what kind of dog is that?” (or remark what a beautiful dog!)

For over ten years now, I have been fielding this question in public, first with Romeo, now with Cotton, sometimes still, around our neighborhood, with both of them. But since Cotton has arrived in his training to take over Romeo’s public duties, it’s now he who draws the questions and wonder.

I also heard my friend, somewhat protectively, trying to head any unwarranted petting off at the pass, with “he’s a service dog.” People don’t often see those instructions on his vest, either because he is close to me or because they don’t notice or want to notice or who knows why. Though it can be tiring, I have come to accept that walking around with one or both of my Silkens, despite the purpose being that I am able to walk around with more grace, ease and spacial stability, more quickly and straightly, is often actually what I imagine it might be like to walk around with a movie star. This makes me laugh to myself since I have this idea that I’m anonymously out in the world, moving with ease, unnoticed. Not so.

When I turned to address this woman and answer her question graciously (as I always try to do), I saw that she would not interlope into our space. I’ve been to this winter market a handful of times since it came indoors for the season, and each time it’s been with the friend who played defense while  I paid for my purchase, so she has become accustomed to how visible we are and how likely it is that someone will approach us, sometimes in the middle of a transaction I’m trying to manage or logistics like distributing weight in bags or who will carry what. She’s seen me navigate away if we’re going down an aisle where there is an unruly smaller dog close to the floor looking for someone to yap at, too. She’s seen the spectrum of what I have to negotiate in order to have the help Cotton so seamlessly provides me.

This particular woman, however, stayed in her own space and after remarking on what a beautiful dog he was and sincerely wanting to know his breed, said something about how beautifully he did his job. She said she worked for the Animal Shelter and that our connection was remarkable.

“I’ve seen you here several times,” she said, “and I’ve watched the two of you. You don’t walk together, you move together.” He’s very tuned in to you.” And then she said, as if in awe, “It’s really beautiful to see. Thank you.”

I found myself telling her that yes, though it was subtle, I was able to entrain myself to Cotton and he to what I was asking of him, and thus, I always had a marker for where I was in a crowded and highly dynamic and stimulated space, and it made a world of difference in terms of walking more straightly and even more quickly if needed, and was much more fun than my walking stick (which honestly I haven’t used in years, except for the time before I got Cotton and Romeo injured his foot on a piece of cut glass.)

I was able to say this to her and also that my arm did not get tired from grasping the walking stick, all because of what she saw in us and what she said about it.

I realized that so often when I say to people, “it’s subtle, but it makes a big difference,” often as a way to quickly summarize its importance and move on, that I’m also on some level apologizing for looking “normal” and not seeming to need the help of a service dog for mobility’s sake. But this woman was not questioning that, she was complimenting me on how well we moved together, and in the process educating me about exactly what Cotton and I do together, so naturally that I hardly think of it at all.

She reminded me of my former neighbor in Moscow, who many years ago first noticed this phenomenon between me and Romeo. A retired horse trainer, he stopped me on the trail one day and said, “that dog is helping you.” When I demurred politely saying “do you really  think so?”  he made me listen again by using his credentials. “I trained horses for years and I know a helper animal when I see one. I watched the two of you go down the icy steps back at the corner. He paces himself to you. He waits for you.” The validation this neighbor provided me gave me the courage to take Romeo in to my doctor and have him watch us walk together. I was told I was walking more straightly and more quickly, and that he would write a letter to that effect. That in turn gave me the courage one day to take Romeo into the co-op with me to buy a bunch of green onions. The manager said to me, I know he’s helping you, I can see that, but if you bring him back he needs to wear a vest to that effect.” And so we got a vest. And later when the city was going to ban dogs from the farmer’s market, which would have made it pretty hard for me to go there without Romeo, I worked with a service dog trainer who helps disabled individuals train their own dogs. After a couple of meetings to see how we did things she said, he’s doing what you want him to do, I don’t think he needs further training. He could pass muster in an airport.” And so my adventures traveling all the way to Portland, and then the coast with Romeo at my side, came to be. Though I never got the courage to board a plane with him, I sure remember the first time he went out to dinner with me in Portland at Blossoming Lotus. And on the bus down to Powell’s. That night as I lay under an old quilt in the bedroom at Mike and Kelly’s listening to the rain fall with Romeo at my feet, I gave him a pet and a heartfelt thank you out loud. He sighed deeply with contentment under my touch. He, too, knew we had accomplished something wonderful together.

I didn’t know then that I would move to Portland and after that at the suggestion of my vets I would find Cotton amongst the Silken community I became a part of. I didn’t know then that Romeo would understand why Cotton came into our lives, and not only accept him, but somehow also impart wordless knowledge of what his role was to be, so that he could step back and relax and enjoy his retirement. He turned 14 this past December.

I could say it’s because of an intuitive quality most Silkens seem to have that makes it second nature for them to sense what it is you want them to be, and to become that as a means of pleasing you. Many owners in the online groups I’m a part of have said as much.

I’ve watched Cotton learn from Romeo and also from me, at first learning how to walk with me down the steps, how to brace so I can get a hand up if I need it, how to stay with me, how to shop with me, and even how to curl up in the corner of the dentist cubicle while I get my teeth cleaned and fixed. And when he is off leash, how to read the ocean and trust my assessment of it and come back when I call him in order to be safe.

All of this, I finally must admit to myself, might  have everything to do with me, with what I’m asking them to do, and how I ask and expect and reward it, just by being who I am,.

In some organic way, I have been able to tune in to them and just know how to ask it, and receive it in return.

But what, exactly, is this illusive “it”?

As I write this sentence I am suddenly returned to a memory of my near death experience on the San Diego Freeway, and the ‘instruction” I received from what I call the two angels who kept me from leaving my body entirely, with the injunction to “go back and learn how to receive.” Just as on that autumn equinox day when I recalled the accident while my dogs had flanked themselves on either side of me, and evoked those angels enjoining me to learn how to receive, just writing the word “receive” above sent me a flash of new and instantaneous understanding: that I DO ask of them to move with me in this beautiful way, and in the asking I also learn how to receive their beautiful answer. I am doing the homework the angels at the accident gave me, as they returned me to my body and instructed me how to save my life. (If you haven’t yet, you can read more about this experience in the post Woosh.)

As Cotton and I and my friend walked away and out of the winter market, my friend said to me like, “Well, I guess you just never know what’s going to happen. That was not the usual encounter, and here I was all ready to defend and block!” And she laughed, wise and compassionate person that she is, who knows what the opportunity to receive looks like when she sees it. And so,  blessed with our encounter, out the door the three of us went, in tandem, into the unseasonably warm and bright January sun.

Maria (moonwatcher)

 

 

 

 

 

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Where The Rainbow Begins

January 12, 2019

On the night of my birthday I wrote: “Was just relaxing here by the fire with the dogs, listening to the rain on my roof and laughing to myself, thinking, ‘I can’t go to bed until after 10:27 pm because I haven’t been “born” until after that!’ It’s been a full day. Enjoyed the sea […]

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Grown Up Anise Cookies (Vegan and Gluten Free)

December 29, 2018

As I have written about before, my Dad was a staunch believer in the 12 Days of Christmas. Every year he would take from December 24 to January 6 off from work. He’d grow a beard and in general relax and enjoy himself. He especially savored the holiday baking we had done leading up to […]

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Aloft

December 7, 2018

When I first moved to the little park mobile home at the coast in September of 2016, I began a rough draft of what may someday be a memoir arising out of this blog. When I got as far with a beginning as I could get, I decided to begin the process of rereading all […]

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Broken Lasagna Minestrone

November 26, 2018

A storm is blowing in off the ocean. The waves were high this morning, the sky is gray, and the trees are now bending their wide ever green branches in the wind. And the wind is cold. It’s time for soup. It’s also time for some soup for my soul. I’m heart broken beyond words […]

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In The Beginning

November 10, 2018

I was a curious child, apparently always asking questions that could put grown-ups on the spot. Sometime during elementary school, I remember becoming curious about when all the mothers on our block had gotten married, since my own mother did not do so until the age of 26, which was considered just shy of ancient […]

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Walk On

October 29, 2018

I got out of bed this morning after my first set of meditations and stretches to do a bit more yoga and loving kindness meditation. Afterwards, I was left with the song “You’ll Never Walk Alone” so present in my being that I started to sing it out loud. After decades of not even thinking […]

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Vegan Gluten Free Happy Birthday Cake

October 22, 2018

I’m not celebrating anybody’s birthday this week. But sometimes it’s nice to remember a special occasion, or pretend there is one when there isn’t. It conjures up those feelings a special occasion brings, the ones that make us feel grateful for each other and for how we have made it through good times and bad. […]

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Turning the Tide

October 18, 2018

I am working on a blog post about a gluten free cake recipe I want to share with you, but this is not that post. This is something else, again, like the last post, about my human experience I was given to know suddenly, and which I feel compelled to share here. For any of […]

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