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October 11, 2011

Space for the Fire

One concept from the MEV process that I am still struggling with is spaciousness. So many, no, probably all of the colleagues I like to work with, think with, collaborate with, are fiercely committed to our collective work to end violence against women and girls. It is a passion, a vocation, and more. I am simultaneously compelled by the injustice of the violence and by the hope and conviction that things can and should be different. I suspect that is true for my colleagues. Perhaps that is true for you as well.

This conviction has led me not to spaciousness, but to busyness.

Busy responding to crisis calls, busy trying to raise money, busy trying to continue our learning, busy designing and giving trainings, busy trying to keep organizations afloat, busy building coalitions, busy meeting with legislators, busy flying and driving here and there to meet with people, to advocate.

I think all social change work has an urgency to it. Our work to end violence against women and girls is about saving lives. It is about transforming culture. Somehow, it is also about saving and transforming our selves.

This makes it very hard to sit still or slow down. Right?

Yet, we know it is not good for us to be in motion all of the time. Nor is it good for our ability to be our most effective and our most powerful while we work to create lasting change.

The quote below resonates with me; I also find it troubling.

There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence, and that is activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form of its innate violence. To allow one self to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit one self to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work because it kills the root of inner wisdom, which makes work fruitful. – Thomas Merton

It is hard for me to consider that there might be violence in the busyness of my activism and the ways I try to manifest my commitments towards peace and justice. It is completely antithetical to “being the change.”

I love to fly. I especially love it when I can follow the flight path on the small maps in the televisions on the back of the airplane’s seats. As the image of the plane travels by cities, through countries, and over continents, I often consider the massive scope of the problem of violence against women and girls. At those moments, and many others, it feels impossible or even indulgent to think about reflecting, resting, and creating space.

So, I find tremendous solace in the poem below. MEV faculty member Puanani Burgess introduced us to this poem at the first convening.

(If you are up for it, I strongly suggest reading it aloud!)


What makes a fire burn
is the space between the logs,
a breathing space.
Too much of a good thing,
too many logs
packed in too tight
can douse the flames
almost as surely
as a pail of water.

So building fires
requires attention
to the spaces in between,
as much as to the wood.

When we are able to build
open spaces
in the same way
we have learned
to pile on logs,
then we come to see how
it is fuel, and the absence of fuel
together, that make fire possible.

We only need to lay a log
lightly from time to time.
A fire
simply because space is there,
with the openings
in which the flame
that knows just how it wants to burn
can find its way.

– Judy Brown

I think this poem is both an invitation and reminder, because we are both the fuel and the fire. It is first, an invitation into spaciousness – whatever that means: getting out of the way, being quiet, clearing clutter, recognizing there can be power in doing less, that perhaps we need less of certain kinds of fuel than we think to achieve our goals.

And, it is a beautiful reminder that in that spaciousness our inner wisdom, as individuals and as a movement, will flourish “because it knows just how it wants to burn.” If this is true, it is like what Grace Lee Boggs said, “We are the leaders we have been waiting for.”

I am still trying to get my mind and heart (and schedule) around it. But exchanging busyness for effectiveness seems like a worthwhile tradeoff.

Art by lizar_tistry