When I started this project, it was meant to be a straightforward spiritual memoir. Gay kid raised Catholic, saved from suicide by a nun, enters the convent at 18, kicked out at 20, spends next 40 years learning to heal, forgive, find her voice. It was an “If I can, you can” story about disentangling from outdated beliefs, breaking free of fear, defeating rejection with resilience, creating a life of adventure and purpose. It was a tale of transformation—from indoctrinated Catholic to original thinker, trauma victim to change agent, international photojournalist to spiritual contemplative. A sweeping narrative arc peppered with conflict, loss, turbulence and triumph.
Then came COVID. Then Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd. Then the protests, the rage, the grief, the isolation. And the question for me, a Black Lives Matter supporter, a cultural activist and maker of change: how does this book matter now? Who will be served by this story of a white girl’s spiritual journey?
I stopped writing. I attended protests and socially distanced. I prayed and pondered and listened to the wind. Eventually I remembered: My activism is my spirituality in running shoes. It is one energy manifesting in two forms: as wave and particle, yin and yang, thought and action. My faith is the sum of my spiritual commitments. My commitments are the foundation for my action in the world. My action in the world is a spiritual force of moral consequence. It culminates in kindness, leans toward justice.
One’s spiritual journey, if conscious, is an evolutionary experience. It involves transformation. One begins with inherited doctrines, established traditions; families, churches and cultures lay out the rules and regulations. Then one matures, begins to think independently, asks new questions, arrives at her own conclusions about matters of divinity. Stories of transformation are necessary today as we attempt to transform the moral infrastructure of our troubled nation, asking questions we’ve not asked before. What can we learn from the Earth about change? What can we learn from our ancestors about evolving a higher consciousness, changing a culture? What does the Earth uniquely need from human beings? Every transformed life is a resource here. Every mind that understands metamorphosis should be tapped here.
Philosopher Jacob Needleman once suggested that group pondering will be the art form of the future. Suddenly, faced with demands for social distancing, millions of people around the world are group pondering on Zoom, tackling issues in every imaginable language. Evolution is progressing us. It is causing us to find each other, speak to each other across continents, benefit from the diversity of our experience. For some reason, we were unable to move forward on our own, but the demands of COVID led to an outcome we’ve needed for years: people learning how to be sociable, strategic, collaborative, and collectively creative.
. I learn from the storytellers to examine my experience, forgive the trespasses, harvest the wisdom, be grateful for the growth. When people share the events of their lives it awakens me to this truth: that while life happens to me, it also happens for me and through me. I am an agent in the matter. The circumstances I face I have helped to create.
The stories in this book begin in the convent where I prepared to make vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. I wore a veil. I confessed my sins. I prayed to be different, to not be gay, to not love whom I loved. But that did not happen. I was sent home before vows, an unbearable rejection I barely survived.
Unnavigable roads exist between who I was then and who I am now. The terrain stretches from a Catholic school in upstate New York to a Buddhist retreat in the Japanese Alps, a mountain path in the Himalayas, a Hindu ashram in Gujarat, India. The path weaves through Selma, Alabama, Little Rock, Arkansas, the Navajo Nation, Nagasaki. I remember the peaks, the feeling of awe, the wet smell of monsoon, the cliff’s edge where I stood frozen, afraid to move. It’s a mystery, this evolution from frightened to fearless, this resurrection of a life from death to rebirth. The veil is thin between silence and song.
To blend contemplative practice and social action is a spiritual discipline, an exercise rooted in the word “disciple.” I am a disciple of the teachers who preached kindness, justice, care for the forsaken. “What you do for them, you do for me…and what you see me do, you can do and more.” Those words of Jesus inform what I do, influence what I believe. You belong to each other. Be food for each other.
Prayer in motion is illumined action, and illumined action rises from a sea of deep peace.
The Buddha, it is told, said to his students: Engage with joy in the sorrows of the world. This is the story of my attempt to do that.