Heart Softening–What Cracks Open?

“The heart that breaks open can contain the universe.” Joanna Macy

What is your way into heart softening? Is it witnessing a child’s unadulterated joy in being alive? A poem? A story that creates a special connection between you and the person speaking?

What does “heart softening” mean and why does it matter? The other day I had such a softening moment as I drove home from a meeting with a client. I realized that while I sat listening to him his story had touched my heart with an almost physical touch. I felt a softness, a sense of opening within, that had been missing for some time.

I allowed myself to feel that softness for a few moments. It took those moments for me to realize what was happening as I moved from the meeting toward the next event on my schedule. I liked how the softening felt. I decided I would do my best to hold onto that feeling as I went about my day.

I allowed myself to acknowledge the sad fact that I had been missing that feeling of softness, and the peace that followed it, for some time. Events here in the U.S. and in the wider world have been dark and painful, for days, for months. The shortened, darker days of November had been hammering home a sense of despair and deep sadness that was living in me. I found myself having small fits of anger at the irritations in my daily routine and those incidents were increasing. My heart had hardened.

I was becoming more and more cynical about our government, the future of our environment and planet, and my ability to have any positive effect on what feels like a terrible onslaught of bad things, with no end in sight. These negative feelings were becoming my norm. I was walking through my days as if I was moving through mud, and the mud, I saw, was depression. My energy was low, a sense of inertia marked my days. Yes, it was ugly.

Luckily things crack open. Eggs—my morning one into the cup to poach for breakfast, an eagle’s to birth her chick. The clouds—this morning as the sun rose—split open along the horizon over the Cascade Mountains and the Seattle skyline, revealing a surreal pink light that spread onto the water. The soft salmon-pink buds of my cactus on the kitchen counter were spreading wide to release their inner beauty, the cactus a gift from a dear friend. Rocks crack open from the movement of the energies contained within, as does ice. The cocoon splits open and the butterfly emerges, transformed. And seeds—seeds crack open in the dark, releasing life. As Leonard Cohen wrote “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

What in your world cracks open each day? What would you tell me, once you start looking for things that open, things that soften your heart in your day? I am so curious to know.

The crack appeared in my session with my client. He told me a story about being hurt by someone he revered and we walked into the pain together. I listened closely. I did my best to ask questions that would help him reflect in order to become clearer about what had happened and who he was in that experience. I tried to plant a few seeds. I tried to water the seeds he had already planted for himself.

On my way home I felt a gentleness in my body and realized my heart was softening, cracking open, and compassion was taking root again. I felt some inner peace. Then came a sense of relief that I hadn’t lost my capacity to care. My client had gifted me with his story.

Real feelings shape us. I don’t discount the power of anger to move us into action. I don’t negate deep grief at the loss of a loved one, a pet, the loss of one’s own agency when health falters. The toughest emotions activate us, push us to work for justice, to help others. My poems hold strong emotions, speaking to the pain and tragedy of real life, in hopes of connecting to someone else. Some would call them dark. I write the poem that needs to be written, as my teacher points out, and if I am listening closely, the poem writes itself. I write these poems because I believe we need to know these feelings. In the knowing we can find our hearts again, we can find one another and we might even be transformed.

A wise person once told me our lives are like a spiral staircase that we continually climb, going around and around, trying to gain understanding of who we are and where we come from.

We climb up and up, and in the circling we sometimes hit against the bannister—those old hurts, sad memories, hard experiences, those losses. Gradually we learn how to navigate the stairs, naming the emotions that are triggered by those bumps. We learn to acknowledge the bumpy place as something that is a part of us and let it go. We can be gentle with ourselves and others in this process, keeping our hearts soft.

How then do we find our way to heart softening? How do we become aware of the places where things crack open and the light can enter again? I find m heart is touched most often in the small, often simple, events and moments of my daily life these days.

In that touching is the softening, like kneading bread, or stroking the cat’s fur. It is in the moments when I take the time to stand still and look, really look, at the lime green alder leaf lying on the dark gray gravel amidst red mountain ash berries and soft brown pine needles, all in their death throes, all dying to live into life in the spring, all so colorful, together. These small, often physical events throughout my day bring me present so that I see beyond them to the many good people doing many thousands of good things in the world.

You can do this too. Try using your five senses as you move through your day. What do you see? Smell? Taste? Hear? Touch? What does your softened heart actually feel like? What cracks open the hardness or protective shell that covers your heart like the green fuzzy casings of the deep red oriental poppy bud that split apart releasing its petals in the warm sun?

Find your own heart softening things—music does it for me every time, especially when I’m feeling most hardened up and stuck. Poetry is another of my go to ways to shift my energy.

Sometimes life is not warm and fuzzy. Let yourself feel the hard things, the painful things, like the cold steel of a prison door or the sound of a child crying whose parent has been taken from her. Your heart will crack open and you will find compassion waiting.

Find your softened heart, though it might be sorely tested, and feel it pump life and guide your thoughts and actions. Meet a good friend for coffee and listen attentively. Stop for a moment and look closely at morning frost on a fallen leaf. Listen. You might notice that the littlest birds sing the prettiest songs.

Blessing for Standing Rock Protectors

“What is a blessing? A blessing is a circle of light drawn around a person to protect, heal and strengthen. Life is a constant flow of emergence. The beauty of blessing is its belief that it can affect what unfolds”                                     

                                                                                      ~John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us

Blessing for Standing Rock Water Protectors

In the stillness of the North Dakota night
under the million-starred sky
this blessing is called down
upon the tipis and tents,
circle fires and sweat lodges,
cars, vans, trucks and horses,
upon the tribal elders, women and men,
upon the Standing Rock Youth Council
and their runners who raced across the land
in appreciation of all who have come together
to protect the water and the earth which holds it,
upon the babies and children,
and all who stand in witness to this call for clean water
and respect for sacred sites.

We call this blessing from the four directions,
and from above and below,
and from all the people, near and far,
who support the nations gathered in the prairie.

Great Spirit of all our souls, encircle with Light and strengthen
the ones who cook the meals
the ones who wash the clothes
the ones who tend the children
the ones who feed the horses
the ones who gave birth here and their child
the ones who speak out and testify
the ones who post on social media
the ones who march
the ones who drum
the ones who stand their ground
the ones who are arrested and imprisoned
the ones who are tazed and struck with rubber bullets
the ones who report and film the actions and are charged
the ones who established a new camp at Cannon Ball,
to reclaim the land that was once theirs.

We offer this blessing of love, understanding and truth-seeing
on behalf of all the ancestors,
of all our relations,
who speak to us today in the actions at Standing Rock
and in our dreams.
We offer our prayers, joined with theirs,
rising together in the smoke.

May we heed the call of all who have gone before
to protect the water that is life giving to all,
and the Earth, who nurtures us.
May we honor the history of the people
who have been wronged for too many years
and attend to this uprising and gathering
with ears to hear and hearts to love.
May healing come where harm was done,
May hearts and minds awaken,
May actions for the good be taken.

Editor’s Note: I wrote this blessing in response to a prompt from my poetry teacher, Sue Sutherland-Hanson. The blessing was also prompted by a deep desire to take an action on behalf of the Native people who have gathered to protect the water and the sacred burial sites on their land that is being threatened by the construction of an oil pipeline that would be laid underneath the Missouri River.

As I have educated myself on what is happening at Standing Rock, North Dakota, I have learned much and still have much to learn. This movement is testimony of the power of the people coming together, uniting for something that is bigger than each one of us, that is important to our survival and the survival of all the creatures.

Many of those speaking and acting to save the water quality, the very earth that sustains us, and the sacred sites of their ancestors have inspired me. I will name some here, and know I will miss some I wish to lift up. My hope is that this blessing reaches each and every one.

In Gratitude:

Thank you to the Youth Council of Standing Rock who held a race to thank those who have come together with the Sioux nation tribes, and to the International Indigenous Youth who participated in the protest at the Cannon Ball camp site.

Thank you to Sky Bird Black Owl for giving birth to her daughter in the tipi at Standing Rock and for her testimony about how women (and children and men) must be protected and must speak out to make the world safe for all.

Thank you to the ones who meet with Ban Ki-Moon to instruct him about the sovereign nations and who are not, and have not ever been, seated at the UN table.

Thank you to the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe chairman, Harold Frazier, who met with President Obama in Los Angeles on the National Day of Action at Standing Rock, October 25, 2016, to ask him to protect the rights of the Lakota People, their sacred sites and the waters of the Missouri River.[1]

Thank you to the people who have established the new Oceti Sakowin camp at Cannon Ball, ND, and took back unceded territory affirmed in the 1851 Treaty of Ft. Laramie as sovereign land under control of the Oceti Sakowin, on the final three miles of the pipeline route.[2]

Thank you to those who resisted being moved from the Oceti Sakowin camp by police from five states, and took pepper spray, rubber bullets and other violence as they prayed to protect the water, risking harm to themselves.

Thank you to Amy Goodman and Deia Schlosberg for witnessing and covering the actions and being willing to be arrested and charged in order to maintain freedom of the press and freedom of speech in the coverage of Standing Rock and other pipeline climate change actions, and Josh Fox for continuing coverage.[3]

Thank you to the judge who dismissed the charges against Amy Goodwin.

Thank you to all the persons of faith (Unitarian Universalists, United Church of Christ, Episcopalians and many others) who have traveled to Standing Rock when I could not, who have issued statements of support and solidarity for this justice work, and who have taken supplies and warm clothing to the people living there.

Thank you to Mara Lindbergh, friend and massage therapist of twenty plus years, for talking with me about this important event in our time and for supporting me to speak out.

Thank you to Sue Sutherland-Hanson, poetry teacher, ministerial colleague and friend, for urging me to share this blessing more widely.

 ©Lisa Ashley, 10.25.16

[1] https://www.facebook.com/search/top/q=cheyenne%20river%20sioux%20tribal%20chairman

[2] https://www.facebook.com/StandingRockDakotaAccessPipelineOpposition/?fref=ts

[3] http://www.ecowatch.com/arrest-dakota-access-pipeline-josh-fox-2043414741.html and http://www.ecowatch.com/josh-fox-deia-schlosberg-arrest-2044387167.html

Spring Shivaree

IMG_4519There’s something about spring that releases an exuberance in my spirit. The air is warmer, the birds wake me earlier every day. The frogs call out at night, “Here I am, here I am!” with an abandon that makes me grin. Small green leaves emerge overnight, radishes pop up in two days time after I drop the small round seeds into the dark, moist soil, patting them in like I once tucked my son into his crib those years ago. Time flies by and the days grow longer and I can’t wait to get out into the fresh air every day.

My spirituality is deeply grounded in the world of Nature. She holds me, she gives me solace, she fills my eyes with beauty. I am renewed in a few moments in the sun, or walking in the woods. I spend time looking closely at the trillium flower, memorizing it as if no others will come again next spring while reveling in the sheer abundance of unfurling ferns around me. Calm and awe mix together and lighten my heart.

I offer this poem to you all, a simple celebration of the riot of colors and sights that greeted me one day as I took a small stroll around my yard and garden, where the wild things grow along side the cultivated. May you find the warmth of the sun, the solace and renewal of spirit that the colors, smells and textures of Spring in the world give us. Stop to look, listen, smell, taste and touch the abundance of new life. Share one of your moments with a friend, a loved one, or someone who may not be able to access the abundance as easily as you can. Smile. It’s spring!

Spring Shivaree

The williwaw wind scuds the clouds away,
scrubbing the sky into sapphire brilliance.

My eyes, dulled by days and days of gray,
shriek in sudden sun-blinded joy.

Every color screams at once for attention,
purple crocus preens among bleating emerald grass,
saucy yellow jonquils in shadows glow.

Bobbing snowdrops, milk splatters against chocolate earth,
below glowing leaves, tiny clouds of green fairy dust
surround the jaunty jay’s raucous calls.
Green-budded twig a resting place for eyes and bird.

Lime green newness has coated the shrub.
Cherished spring color pulls my eyes right round
into back-lit branches I peer, tight-squinted, to see the hope.

Skewering into the radiance, I want
to catch small leaves dancing in the wind,
each branch dips and bounces, parading its resilience.

Red-flamed primrose flaunts her skirts,
rubbing up against her gaudy magenta mate,
no fashion sense at all, these beauties.

I must go closer, ever closer,
“Look at me! No, look at me!” they call.

Soft lavender hyacinth tolerantly nods.
She knows her turn will come.

February 21, 2016
©Lisa Ashley
Revised March 30, 2016


IMG_3968There never seems to be any sanctuary in the jail. Barren walls, bright lights, noise, no privacy.

We sit and talk about the hardest things, the most heart breaking things, while guards watch us and other chaplains and youth sit together, not more than twenty feet away. There is no holy place to be quiet, no candles to light, no flame of warmth to wrap around us.

So I hold his brown-eyed gaze, I embrace him with my silence. I speak the words that come from my heart, without much censor, because I know he needs to hear that he is good, that he is held in God’s embrace, whomever, whatever God is to him.

The room closes in, the noises recede, the people are forgotten.

Our sanctuary is a tiny one, just we two, safe and held in enormous love, the unconditional kind. I see you. You are worthy. You are not the actions you have done or the actions that have been done to you. Here you are safe, for 45 minutes.

And when I cannot bear to close you down, when I sense your huge need to talk and talk, pouring out your sorrows, your anger, your fear and pain, well, then I break the rule and I hold the sanctuary open longer, stretching our time to 90 minutes, until your staff comes to take you back to your cell. The supervisor, who knows me well, must reprimand me to follow the rules. We eye each other. She nods. She knows I will break the rule again.

What is 45 minutes, 90, when an entire life of 16 years needs sanctuary? When this life has never known it? Who makes these rules? On what basis? On what experience?

In the holding of his gaze, in our jokes, in my questions to clarify his story, in his questions, in his stories, in our closing prayer together, sanctuary surrounds and holds us, taking us into a time out of time, a place of freedom for a short while, a place of rest, a place of truth and respect, a place of love.

I light the candle in my mind. He lifts his eyes to mine and the shield is lowered a bit more. Each week his words are more truthful than the last as he goes deeper into the story of his violent, chaos-ridden life. Each week I marvel at his resilience, his courage, his love for his mother and brother. Each week he shares a tiny bit more of the fear and the nightmares that have been with him for many years and are still with him even in the safety of the jail, as door locks are popped open and he flinches from the gunshots his mind and body heard. I long to give him peace, I long to give him rest. Each week I light the candle in my mind. Each week I listen.



©Lisa Ashley

March 11, 2016

Where Kindness is Not Allowed

In my worldview kindness and justice are deeply connected. If I express kindness to another person, justice and compassion are created by the action because I am honoring and respecting the other person. I am giving of myself in love and compassion to another. I am able to receive kindness in return. This is the simple back and forth equation that I try to live by because it makes sense, it gives me hope and it works.

What happens when kindness is not allowed? Last month I made one of two annual visits to the “Big House,” the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, to visit my friend A. A. is 21 and has been living in the Big House for more than three years. I have been his only visitor during these years.

I have the routine down. I check in and go through security carrying only my car key, my driver’s license, and my food card. I wear non-revealing clothing, only two rings, one pair of earrings and shoes that are easy to slip on and off. I lock my car and enter the building about ten minutes before check in begins. I’ll be able to visit with A. until 5:30.

A young woman is in the lobby with an older woman, grandmother and granddaughter it turns out. The granddaughter is there to visit a friend. “He used to be the love of my life,” she tells me, “But now we are just friends. I moved to Michigan two months ago, but I’m back for a visit so I came to see him.” She is nervous. She hasn’t seen her friend in a couple of years. Her grandmother says the girl has never been to this prison. I explain the routine. She changes into another shirt she has brought with her because her loose blouse slid about her thin shoulders, revealing the straps of her camisole top. No “provocative” clothing allowed.

I ask her if she wants to get her friend something to eat from the vending machines in the visiting room. I explain about the food cards. She doesn’t have any cash on her to buy the card (for $5.00) or to add money to it that would then be deducted like a debit card when she put it in the machines for a soda and some chips. I tell her I will share mine. She assures me it will be okay. “I’m only staying a couple of hours,” she explains. “We have to get back.” Seattle was a five-hour drive if the weather is good. Grandma is going to wait for her in the car.

We continue to chat as we wait through the 45-minute check in process, sharing our stories of who we are and whom we are visiting. This is something I do each time I go. I meet someone and talk with them in part to pass the time and in part because I am interested in people. I believe that we are better for having made a connection with someone even if I never see the person again. It’s less tense in the waiting room when I talk with someone who is waiting to go inside.

Once in the visiting room (finally!), I purchase a soda and some chips for A. and bring them to our assigned table. I go over to the young woman and offer to get her something. We decide her friend would probably enjoy a coke and some Doritos. She thanks me and takes them to her table.

At last the men come through from their units for the visits. It was good to see A. We hug and begin talking right away, catching up and discussing his case. A couple hours pass. I go to the machines and get A. a hamburger. I’m heating it up in the microwave when a corrections officer comes up to me.

“Are you the person who bought food for someone else?” he asks.
“Yes,” I reply. My heart lurches a bit.
“Did you know you can’t do that?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Well, you can’t. I’m sure you were trying to be kind, but it is not allowed. You can be kind in the real world,” he added, “But this isn’t the real world.”

He went on to explain that the young woman’s friend could have put pressure on A. to buy him something to eat. This is called “strong arming” the officer says, and that is why being kind is not allowed.

I tell him I won’t do it again. I walk back to our table a bit rattled. I think about this incident on my long drive home.

There are indeed two worlds—my life and world on the “outs” and A.’s life and world “inside.” In fact, there are two worlds outside and another inside. I’ve known that for a long time.

Both outside worlds have kindness and love on the good days. Both worlds have days that don’t go so well. Both worlds are entitled to justice, abundance and human rights. The difference in the two worlds lies with which one has privilege, wealth and opportunity and which one has poverty, racism and oppression. Who lives in which world and what is it like to navigate through each world on a given day? The two worlds continue, side by side, two parallel universes, but are disconnected for the most part. The people in one world rarely connect with, or get to know, the people in the other. I am clear which world I inhabit and which world I visit.

And if my world on the outs is the “real” world as the corrections officer pointed out to me, then what would I, or he, call the other world inside? Is it the “unreal” world? It is real enough for those who live in it, I’m sure. I know it is a community, a place where men live and interact with one another sometimes for years and years. Is this community less “real” than mine?

Is it an “unkind” world, since the officer explained that I couldn’t be kind in that world? It certainly appears to be an unkind world to those of us who never go inside. Based on many books and articles by people who live in this world I would not be wrong to call it an unkind, unreal world, a world of darkness.

Yet I know of specific kindnesses that men living in that world are doing for other men inside, including sharing extra food, giving someone a phone call who has no money to pay for the phone, sharing knowledge gleaned from the law library, and mentoring.

I wondered about the officer and the other staff. What is it like to pass from their own “real” world to the world inside the prison and back again, day after day? Which world is more real over time? Which world is the “real” world and for whom, I wondered?

I decided I will continue to do kindnesses in my world because it matters. The officer was kind enough to not ask me to leave as he could have done. I was thankful for that.

I will continue to connect with others, because it matters. I am glad I met the young woman and her grandmother because human connections matter. I’m sure she will bring cash next time if she comes again. I’m glad I spent the whole day with A. this time.

It is hard to visit people who live inside. Making connections and offering kindness helps everyone feel less alone, less stigmatized and more supported. According to the rules, I can’t buy anyone food but I can still reach out to strangers in the waiting room, that world between worlds. We can connect in simple human conversations. Kindness, compassion and justice can be offered and received.

What would it be like of we connected and acted with kindness in every world we encounter? What would change in each world? Would all worlds become one?

Light unfolding

Spirit, be upon me

Spirit of the Mighty, Gentle One,
come upon me, anoint me.

I see the oppressed.
I name them; I hold them close.
Make my life into good news for them.

I see the brokenhearted.
I name them; I hold them close.
Give me gentle grace to bind up their hearts.

I see the imprisoned.
I name them; I hold them close.
Give me true words and deeds to release them.

I see the ruined cities.
I name them; I hold them close.
Make me a part of their building up.

Spirit of God, be upon me.
I see my own ruins, my chains.
Hold me close
 and set me free,
that I may be
 your good news for others.

Steve Garnaas-Holmes
, Unfolding Ligh

I read my daily email message from Pastor Steve Garnass-Holmes on December 9, 2014, in the midst of the furor over the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and in the midst of the Advent season of darkness and waiting for Jesus’ birth. Pastor Steve titles his messages “Unfolding Light.” I am drawn to his postings each day because they are beautiful, poetic, inspiring and thought-provoking. I love his title because it is evocative and hopeful.

My understanding of spiritual direction and how it works is that of the “unfolding light”-—the light that is within you and each one of us.

We meet, talk, listen and reflect and our self awareness grows so that we might embrace the Divine within us and within other people. Our lights unfold.

Advent is a season of waiting in the dark for the Light to come in the form of Jesus’ birth, yet Pastor Steve’s prayer speaks of taking actions, of seeing, naming, and holding others close, and then acting to release and build up others. I believe that in taking these actions we take responsibility for ourselves and, to the extent possible, for those we can affect in positive ways. This includes all humans and all living creatures.

We must first see, then speak, then hold (in respect and love), and then release, lift up, and work for justice in order to rebuild what has fallen, be it a person, a city or a world.

To do this larger work, we must begin at home, with ourselves.

I am a fan of the ripple effect: that one drop of water falling into the pond ripples out and affects a much larger world, even when we cannot see or touch what has been affected. So it is with our listening, seeing, naming, respecting, holding in safety, and loving others. I believe we are co-creating our reality– working in conjunction with Spirit, God(dess), Sacred Mystery, Nature–all that we might “name” as Ultimate.

How and who will you see today? Who or what will you name? Who or what will you hold, respect and love? What actions will you then take?