Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Escaping the Gravity Well, Part II

“And are you retired now?”

I get this question every few months, usually spoken from a kind face (but in a condescending tone, ready to ask and then move on), always from someone younger than myself. At first, it really irritated me. All right, it STILL really irritates me. What, do I look like someone who has nothing more to offer the world? And what would I do for the next forty years, anyway? 

The fact is, I have a more than full-time job that I just can’t seem to quit. It’s called, “Empress of the World Wanna Be.” I have been trying to save the world my whole life. Which, I’ll admit, has been a pretty long life. And you know what? The world isn’t saved yet! As a matter of fact, most people don’t even notice that I’ve been working my head off to save the world since I was twelve. That’s a long time to be worried about things that are too big for me, like nuclear proliferation and the ozone layer and global warming and the general movement away from compassion and community and toward fear and gotcha-ism and zero-sum thinking and the media echo chamber. That’s a long time to feel a heavy weight of grief about the state of our people and our planet.

 I’ve heard repeatedly that one of the ways to process grief and trauma is to connect with other people. To take action. I didn’t seem to be having any luck with finding effective ways to do that, so the answer seemed be to just give up. Give. Up. Take a rest! Fold in on myself and sink into some distracting pursuits, like writing science fiction or maybe learning drums. Then my phone did one of those creepy things it does when it reads my mind and sticks an ad into my YouTube feed. This one was an announcement of a new program at Portland State University. “Change the world. Get a Master’s degree in Emergency Management and Community Resilience,” it said. 


Two days later, I had read everything I could get my hands on about the program and spoken to the program director at length. It seemed that this program really would teach me what I need to know to leverage my efforts – and in concert with other people, not all on my lonesome - to help solve seemingly intractable problems. I had no idea where it would lead me.  But if you want to get to know dolphins, you’ll have to swim where they swim. Jump into the ocean and see if you float. 

To my surprise, I floated. As a matter of fact, during my third term, one of my professors asked me to be part of a multi-agency committee to produce Heat Week, an event meant to bring city and county officials and community-based organizations together to talk about ways to prepare for extreme heat events in the Portland area. I ended up drafting a media strategy concept (I had never done this before, but hey, I had taken a media class during winter term) and helping to conceptualize and produce a climate aware grief panel (I’m not a therapist, but I’ve sure had a lot of therapy, and I certainly feel a lot of grief about the planet).

And everything turned out fine. My worries that “If the other committee members realize I don’t know what I’m doing, they won’t want me on the committee anymore” turned out to be unfounded. They were just happy that I showed up and did my part. 

I report all this to let you know that if you feel overwhelmed and afraid of the future and think that you can’t make a difference, you are almost certainly wrong about that last part. I’m pretty sure a lot of us feel overwhelmed and afraid of what the future will bring. But I will tell you that meeting these people and contributing to this group effort has made me feel more reassured, contented, and calmer. Less alone. I didn’t have to be a rock star or even a runner up for Empress of the World. All I had to do was show up and try.

I can’t wait to jump into the ocean again and swim with the dolphins some more.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Wonderful Moment, (Almost) Unbearable Moment

 Well, so I thought I would just start with where I left off, with my announcement of being in recovery from alcoholism and then plod chronologically through the last seven years. But since I live another day every day, and there are new fucking learning opportunities every day - don't you hate it when that happens - there is no way I would ever catch up. So I'm just going to throw a big bunch of stuff in the air, like throwing pasta at the wall to see if it sticks, because Sue Howard said that's how you tell if it's done, although my Italian friend Andrea says that means it's overdone.

Here's something. When I got sober, my wonderful doctor at Hazelden told me that starting drinking at age twelve had affected my developing brain. I was understandably disheartened at this news, until he told me I was going to be all right. Brains can heal and re-wire. It's called "neuroplasticity," and boy howdy, am I glad this turned out to be true - although it did cause a few leetle changes, such as a complete reboot of my personality. The keys to the transformation, creating new dopamine receptors and neural pathways, were meditation, time, and a lot of sleep. The healing brain needs lots of sleep. And a LOT of meditation. Heart practices, sound meditation, following the breath. We're talking twenty, forty, sixty minutes a day or more, for years.

I started with a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class, then started going to a Buddhist-oriented recovery program four times a week, then to the Heart of Wisdom Zen temple, and eventually started participating in day-long meditation retreats - then a weekend - then a full week. When you literally meditate all day, either formally sitting in the zendo, or during walking practice, or work practice, or mindful eating, every moment becomes the present moment, to be given your full attention. No reading, talking, writing, phones or TV. Even the clocks and mirrors are covered. Suddenly, twenty minutes of counting breaths became just a mindfulness snack.

And I started to change. I learned that thoughts are just thoughts. That you can't argue with reality. Well, you can, but you'll suffer. Reality always wins. That feelings won't kill me. My personality changed profoundly, to the point where my kids were thrilled but my (now ex-) husband, used to a reactive overly-dramatic heavy drinker, wanted out. My inner landscape changed so much that introspection became something of a spectator sport - what unfamiliar thing will I do or think next? 

I'll leave you today with a poem I wrote that evokes what one meditation retreat meant to me. Three vocabulary words: "Han" is the pattern of sounds caused by striking a wooden board by a mallet, that calls the community to meditation. "Zendo" is the meditation hall. "Zazen" means formal sitting practice.


#1 Walking Practice

All the shoes by the door

All the hands palm to palm

All the soles pressed to the floor

Heels, toes, feet as balm

Thirty pairs of eyes downcast

One heart.

#2 Work Practice


Blade strikes cutting board



Silver bowl sings to spoon



Peppers, oranges. Nostrils, awake!


#3 Zazen

Drop the story, me.

Drop the me, story.

Weeping in the zendo.

Breathe softly. Blow the breath away.

Does suffering have a sound?

Is it visible by candlelight?

Drop the stone woman

Drop her from a great height

When she shatters, gather her up

Wrap her in the weft and warp of thirty breaths

Monday, May 9, 2022

A Sense of Place

"Place isn't a setting. Place is an elder in the family. We are not describing landscapes; we are writing biographies." Luis Alberto Urrea

I've been thinking about place a lot lately. I'm getting a degree in emergency management and community resilience, which means I know a lot more about climate change threats (wildfires, toxic smoke, floods, weather weirding) and the Big One than I want to know. There was a time in 2020 when it was dangerous to breathe in the house (COVID) and outside of the house (smoke), I was putting together supplies to prepare for the Cascadia Subduction Zone event, and I could hear explosions from the riots in downtown Portland from my house, four miles away.

I wrote in this space a few years ago about how sometimes I just want to unfurl my magical wings and fly away. I want a different planet.

And because I want a different planet, and I can't have one, I attended a Climate Aware Grief workshop last weekend, hoping for some support and insight. One of the panelists told us to close our eyes and envision a "beloved place of ease." If we could be anywhere, anywhere at all, where would we want to be? And then to open our eyes and take a few minutes to write about it.

This is what I wrote.

"To my surprise, I am sitting in my beloved place of ease. It isn't the beach or Southern Oregon or Italy. It's this office nook, in this kitchen. About this place, I have no complicated feelings of loss or regret or apprehension. 

I lean my elbows on the big butcher block desk. I see my files and books and laptop and tools and ways to communicate, connect, and meditate. The pear tree and my son Robin's little house and garden are visible through the window. To my right are the stairs that lead to reading, rest, sleep, and a view of the western horizon (stars, moon, and sunset).

I smell coffee. I see the Deruta cookie jar and a pile of clementines. I hear my housemate John bumping around downstairs, under my feet. I hear the cat munching his breakfast. I smell incense and see my favorite piece of art in the house, a silkscreen of a silhouetted waterway at dusk, above my desk.

I feel grounded in my entire life here - family, spiritual practice, nature, love, cooking, service and action, creative expression.

This is my beloved place. I don't need to go to a remembered past or envision a future, or go anywhere. I am here now."

So maybe I don't need to fly away. Maybe I don't need a different planet. I can lean into what I have here, now, and continue my work to reduce harm while I'm here. And be grateful.

Saturday, May 7, 2022


Dear friends,

It's been years since I've posted. So many changes. An unexpected divorce. Creating a new home out of the old one. Going back to work as a teacher, leaving the teaching profession, entering graduate school, beginning the work of mitigating harm caused by global warming. The dislocations that we have all experienced: the threats to democracy, the pandemic, civil unrest, the exposure of huge inequities and suffering that many of us didn't want to see. Here in the Pacific Northwest, toxic air, wildfire smoke, flooding - what we call in the Emergency Management field, "weather weirding." Snuggling into familial, spiritual, academic, and activist communities. Restoring my health, mental and physical.

And six years of sobriety, which have made everything else in my life possible.

I have a lot to share with you all.  All the emotions, among them: frustration, anger, fear, and grief; humor, love, gratitude and optimism. A lot of opinions. Learning and curiosity. 

I'm fond of quoting Jed Bartlet in West Wing, and here goes,

"What's next?"

Monday, December 17, 2018

Getting Well

If you’re a follower of this space, and if you are reading this, you probably are, you will have noticed that I haven’t posted much recently. That little respite has come to an end, sports fans. I’ve learned a lot in the last four years, and I’ve decided it’s about time to share some of it with you! Because I’m that kind of public service gal!

But first, some catch up. You probably want to know, where’d Brenda go, and who the hell is Bee?

Now, now. Be patient. I’m going to save the answers to those questions for another post. We’re going to start back in April of 2015, when I was diagnosed with a neurological disorder, a pathology of the meso-limbic dopamine system. This disease is chronic and progressive, and if left untreated, it leads to a really ugly death. I had suspected it for years, and had had a couple of doctors want to take a good look at my symptoms, but I wasn’t interested. I wanted to believe that if it wasn’t diagnosed, it wouldn’t be there or it would go away or I could treat it myself.

But the symptoms got too bad to ignore. Depression. Weight gain. Insomnia. Night sweats, shaky hands, severe back pain. Confusion and memory loss. My eyesight got so bad, I couldn’t read. I lost my singing voice.  I was unable to get through a sentence without stopping two or three times to think of a word. Rapid pulse and tachycardia. Of course, I tried treating it myself, because hey, this is me! I know everything, and if I don’t know it, I’ll Google it! I flirted with different diets and even thyroid medication until finally I wasn’t able to function. I went to my primary doctor, the wonderful Mary Pickett at OHSU, and said, okay, test me. I’ll never forget one of the comments at the bottom of the first page of test results. “Abnormalities at the cellular level.” That got my attention. Maybe this isn’t a do-it-yourself project.

Mary agreed. No, she said, this isn’t something you can self-treat. You need intensive treatment and you need it right now, or make no mistake, it will kill you.

Needless to say, I didn’t want to start any damn intensive treatment. It meant that I had to quit working. I wouldn’t be able to do anything except pay attention to my health. I didn’t have time for this. I resisted for a week. Then I went to donate blood at the Red Cross, and the intake nurse asked about the irregular, rapid pulse. Oh, I said, that’s not anything to worry about. It’s just that I have this disease. She looked intently into my eyes and said, “You need to take care of that. My brother died of that condition yesterday.”

I went home and started making phone calls. Where’s the best place to be treated and who takes my insurance, because we’re looking at many thousands of dollars here? That was a Friday afternoon. By 5:00, I was on a wait list, and on the following Monday morning, I was admitted to a treatment program.

Three doctors. Monitoring blood levels four times a day. Medication. Special diet. A strict exercise and meditation regimen. Three support groups. I thought I would feel better right away, but actually, at first, the treatment made me feel worse. For six weeks, I thought I was going to die or go crazy. That’s not a dramatic statement from a classic soprano, it’s just a fact. Panic attacks, some out of a sound sleep at 4:00 a.m. Crushing chest pain, pretty much twenty-four hours a day. Severe fatigue, unpredictable mood swings, more confusion, more weight gain, worsened irregular heartbeat. The specialist I saw daily said to be patient, that I would get better, it just would take time. I stuck with it, because what else could I do?

My system healed, but slowly. I was discharged from the program after four months, and was able to go back to work full-time five months after that. I was told that after five years, I would stay in remission if I stayed on a management plan for life. 

Four years later, I’m feeling pretty confident. Once I make up my mind to do something, I don’t do it half way. I feel great. My cardiologist says my heart is fine. My eyesight is almost completely back to normal, and I’m singing again. As a matter of fact, I am entirely symptom-free. (My friends will tell you that if not being able to shut up is an indicator, my speech center definitely is back to normal.)

There was one little speed bump. As my brain healed, my personality changed significantly. It was disconcerting to not recognize the contents of my brain, to have to get to know myself all over again. It took a couple of years for me to get comfortable with the new me. My kids told me that they liked the new me just fine, the new me was a much nicer person, but that I was a different person than the one they had always known. My husband at the time had a different take on it, but that’s another story for another day.

I’m one of the lucky ones.  I only had to take four months off from work. I managed to find the doctors, nurses, specialists, medication, and support groups I needed, just in time, and I had insurance that paid most of the expenses. Not everyone does. According to some studies, 80% of the folks who have this illness don’t recover. I’m grateful and my kids are grateful.

And that diagnosis? The pathology of the meso-limbic dopamine system? You never heard of it? There is a colloquial term that’s in standard use. You’ll know that one.

I’m an alcoholic.

Monday, July 25, 2016


Captain Picard says, “Report!” So I will.

I used to report to Ed, back when he was around to be reported to, although I suspect now that he hated getting reported to, but since he and Captain Picard are now fictional actors in my little personal TV show, I will report to y’all instead.

I am out in the garden having a reprise of the 2008 Great Zucchini Flood. Except that I didn’t plant my garden this year, my friend Fonda did, and apparently she liked cucumbers. A lot. As well as summer squash.  And arugula, but I was gone for the first three weeks after it was planted and so by the time I got home and checked out the garden, it had sprouted, shot up, bolted, and gone to seed. I am saving the seed pods for some hypothetical future date when I plant more arugula.

And I’m figuring out soaker hoses!  All by myself! Apparently there are two ends of the hose and one end screws into the other end. Who knew. I am proud. I bought a timer, too, but that will have to wait until tomorrow because all my neurotransmitters are used up for the day.

That’s the garden part of my report. On to e-mail and God.

E-mail wisdom. You’ll like this. I’ve learned that you don’t have to push “send” after you’ve written an e-mail. There’s this little “save” button that it is much, much better to push instead. And then you can find the draft a week later and thank GOD that you didn’t send it.

And I know you want to know this, so I will tell you. I’m having a little trouble with my Higher Power. (This is not as easily fixable as the safety bar on the bumper of my car, because they have autobody shops for that, but oh well.) Before you say to yourself, and I know there’s a good chance that you are, “Oh oh, Brenda has got religion, now she will really be obnoxious,” nobody knows what my H.P. is, including me. I think it has something to do with uncovering my Buddha nature, and the one-ness of the universe, and compassion and forgiveness, and believing that the resources will be available to handle whatever comes next. But I’m not sure, because the next starting point in my life is To Be Determined, mostly by other people. And I really wish I had the kind of Higher Power that some of my friends seem to have, where they are just sure they will be taken care of and they won’t have to worry, because my worrier seems to be stuck on Turbo, except when I remember to breathe.

One of my meditation buddies says to remember that I just have this one breath, this only breath, and that during this one breath, I am okay. Works for him. Sometimes works for me.

And then my wise friend Jayna says that my Higher Power kicks ass. I’m glad she’s sure about that.

She also says that I’m not in control of the wind, or the current, or the tides. But I am in control of whether I take the boat out that day.

She says that there are some streets I shouldn’t drive down, and some holes I don’t have to jump into. I could pay attention to that little (metaphorical) sign, Bridge Out, instead.

The sun is shining, I took the detour, I’m breathing, I am now the proud possessor of thirteen cucumbers, and I can take the boat out today.

And that’s my report.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Where's Tom Lehrer When You Need Him?

Geek alert: references to Eddie Izzard, 1950s science fiction, the New York Times and Star Trek. But you’ll get the gist even if you don’t get all the references.
Okay, I’m beginning to think that the human race is overdue for another big fuck-off flood.

Oh, that’s right! We’re going to get one! Because the Antarctic ice sheet is melting! I just saw a picture on Google maps – there’s this great inspirational app you can get that shows you what your street will look like once the sea levels rise ten feet, which is pretty much inevitable now, probably within my children and grandchildren’s lifetimes and maybe even mine if I succeed in my wild-assed vegan/vigorous-exercise-scheme to live to be 105. I live a hundred miles from the Pacific Ocean and the water will be up to the floorboards of my house. I did always want to move to Venice and now Venice will move to me, sweet!

Anyway. What’s got Brenda’s knickers in a twist now. 

Let’s start with Harvard professors. You just knew this was coming, didn’t you? Because you undoubtedly saw the NYT article about how Harvard economics professors are now upset about the ACA, known in many circles as “Obamacare.” 

Seems that some Harvard professors, many of whom championed the ACA, are now upset because their very own health plan is changing to require them to pay a deductible ($250 for an individual, $750 for a family) and a co-payment of $20 for a doctor’s visit. Bar the door Nellie! It’s the end of civilization!

To quote from the article, “… the university said it ‘must respond to the national trend of rising health care costs, including some driven by…the Affordable Care Act.'” Because gee! “Harvard faces added costs because of provisions that extend coverage for children up to age 26 [and] offer(s) free preventive services like mammograms and colonoscopies…”

Coverage for children?! Including college students, hum. Now there’s a thought. Tired of that oppressive teaching load of ten to twelve hours a week? (I used to teach public school and find this laughable.) Just make it harder for them to afford health insurance and maybe some of them will go away!

Preventative health care? Nah. Just wait until folks are really sick and they’ll go away too, especially if they’re one of the millions who live in a state where their Republican governor said no thanks to federal subsidies for the ACA just to make the President look bad.

And it’s not just Harvard professors that have it in for kids and anybody who might get cancer. The USA Today’s “liberal” article de jour (the jour in question being January 6, 2015) worried about why wages aren’t increasing. Sure, “Stunning technological advances have eliminated millions of jobs.” And, “…at the same time, rising global competition is pressing wages downward even as it adds new markets for American products.” But the biggest concern is this!

 “This year, Washington will raise roughly $3.3 trillion in taxes, mostly from the young, productive and healthy. And it will spend roughly $3.9 trillion, mostly on benefits for the retired, the unproductive and the unhealthy."

Oh my God! Say it’s not so! Taking care of people who are sick, unemployed, or elderly? Or all three? Jeez!  

So that’s just my little outburst about our societal response to taking care of people who aren’t so good at taking care of themselves, like people who are young, old, poor, or sick. If you are one of those people who agree with the sentiments expressed above, then don’t bother leaving a comment because I don’t want to know you.

But my OTHER crab for the day, and the main reason why I think we might need a big fuck-off flood (watch the first fifteen minutes of Eddie Izzard’s video Glorious if you don’t get this reference, and if you don’t have time, it’s about Noah saying to the ducks to get in the ark because there’s going to be a big fuck-off flood and the ducks say, “What’s the big problem?”), is...

Sorry. I got distracted. What I wanted to express is my deep sorrow about the planetary disaster we are facing. Yes, back to the topic I introduced in the first paragraph. I’m talking about global warming. (You can read my op-ed piece, “Bubble Bubble,” that was kindly aired by about this, if you want all the links to back up my assertion that the reason the back of our seed packets got changed to reflect the WARMING of my very own little GROWING ZONE was…global warming. Or you can go on to the next paragraph where I get a little discouraged and sad.)

According to NASA, ninety-seven percent of the scientists on the planet think that global warming is a fact and is caused by human activities. These really smart, educated, thoughtful people are observing, documenting, and worrying about the catastrophic rate at which our planetary ecology is heating up. I say “catastrophic” because it’s all happening too fast for us to respond to it, as a global society and indeed, as a species. If human beings don’t even seem to know how to deal with taking care of the health needs of the sick, young, old and poor, they certainly don’t know how to deal with a sick planet, except to say, “It’s not my fault!” Which brilliant response didn’t help Han Solo, and it’s not gonna help us.

One of my favorite science fiction stories is Zenna Henderson’s The People: No Different Flesh, about people who must flee their failing planet. Lytha, a teenager who witnesses the destruction of her favorite lake, says, “My poor Home! It’s dying!” That’s how I feel, several days a month. And there’s no Jean-Luc Picard and Geordi and Data orbiting in the Enterprise, folks, sent by a benevolent Federation to save us from our folly. There’s just us, frackin’ and grabbin’ and building pipelines and putting our fingers in our ears going “la la la” or at least “Bill Nye the Science Guy, what a joke! Global warming is all a liberal conspiracy to take away my SUV!”

So I’m feeling a bit like a disappointed Mom today. I want the human race, as a whole, to be smarter. More compassionate. More observant and capable of long-term planning. If the human race were my classroom, I’d be teaching them all critical thinking skills and how to work well in groups right now.

Maybe you’re saying, “That’s not me.” Okay, good for you and good for me. Let’s make sure we’re doing all we can do to make our home a nicer place…reasonably, because hey, we wouldn’t want to be too inconvenienced by our opinions. But maybe we could speak up once in awhile or drive a little less or not complain about how our health insurance premiums went up because some kid now has access to medical care?

Change the attitude a little? Be a little nicer to ourselves as a group? Nicer to our home planet, which if you haven’t noticed is the only one we’ve got?

And that’s my wail for the day. I’m trying to laugh, because I suspect that humor is going to be a survival mechanism for me. Where’s Tom Lehrer when you need him? Now there was a Harvard professor.