Foncebadon & the Iron Cross: A Sacrifice in the Mountains

Excerpted from The Slowest Pilgrim ~ the story of my journey along the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage road.

***
Foncebadon is a fabled village of wild dogs and even wilder fear. A village finally back in the mountains, a place of silence interrupted only by the whistling wind gently brushing the grass covered hillsides with her long, gentle fingers. A town higher than any other on the Camino, Foncebadon is little more than a relic. This is the final town on the ascent to Cruz de Ferro, the highest point on the entire path through Spain.

 
I have no idea what happened in Foncebadon, why this beautiful place is nothing more than ruins. Especially when one considers the tremendous number of thousand-year old houses that are still standing, this village is anomalous in Spain. It appears that Foncebadon was never a large village, perhaps twenty houses and a church. Today almost all of those stone houses have collapsed. A stone wall here and there, surrounded 002_14by stone rubble and fuchsia foxgloves growing wild. Some of the houses are nothing more than piles of stone. Others are partially standing structures with wood frameworks that appear ready to give way in the next strong gust of wind. One house even had a window frame moderately intact, however, it was misshapen from the stones settling over the years and looked more like a fun house window than one from an ancient village. The few modern houses seemed oddly out-of-place in this pseudo-gravesite, but the smell of wood fires in July was remarkably comforting as the surprisingly chilly evening breeze settled in with the night.

 
Foncebadon is a place of great peace, deep silence, and endless time. Nature has returned humanity’s structures to her womb, to be held and weathered and reborn. To have spent time here is a blessing, reminding me that nothing is permanent, that all of life is a sacrifice. With every step, water courses through my veins, washes my eyes and throat, pours out of my body as sweat, and is returned to the atmosphere. With every step, air moves through me, feeding my body and moving me into greater awareness through the aligned rhythm of breath and step. With every step, the earth meets my feet, reminding me that I can’t help coming into relationship with all that is around me, that the earth and I are intricately connected. With every step, I am asked to face my existence now, without any consideration of the past or the future, the fire that is my life force burns on even when my mind is unable to process any more. The cyclic nature of my place in existence, the cyclic nature of earth, the cyclic nature of life in every form, I can’t escape the reality of these things. Every step takes me further away from the notions of my life and closer to the pure current of life that is no different from the foxgloves pushing their way through the rubble of fallen Foncebadon.

 
As for the wild dogs of Foncebadon reported by Shirley MacLaine and Paulo Coehlo in their books, the only dog I encountered in the entire village was a large tan dog sleeping outside the albergue, a dog who didn’t move from the time I arrived until the time I left the next morning. On the Camino we all have different paths, different struggles, different fears, different demons to face. The wild dogs of Spain didn’t emerge as my experience. I believe that in some way we all created the obstacles we would face on our journeys. Mine didn’t involve devil dogs with gnashing teeth. Mine was a maddening struggle with the sun and the inescapable heat.

 
In Foncebadon, I began to understand some of the greatest lessons of my Camino. My journey showed me that there is no true escape, though I may often feel that I can escape from one problematic situation to the safety and comfort of another situation. In truth, 027_25Athere is simply one thing, then another, then another. To be cornered by the open sky, to be trapped beneath the bright summer sun, and to be unable to escape was the greatest suffering I’ve ever known. In the midst of such intensity and exhaustion, even my mind was no longer available as a playground of escape. My mind abandoned me on the Camino. I was left holding nothing but another step, another breath. The horizon wasn’t a goal, but a frozen moment of now. I was always safe, the ground was always there to comfort me, and occasionally there were trees to shade the way and fellow pilgrims to remind me that I was indeed absorbed in the flow of life.

***
After I finished my morning writing, I noticed Matthias standing on the hillside to watch the sunrise. I left my pack inside and joined him. We huddled close together in the freezing morning air, watching clouds of breath form. At first a deep, earthen color began to emerge from the horizon, illuminating a few deep gray clouds. A few others joined us, but the sunrise came slowly. I returned to the dining room for a breakfast of tea and toast, enjoying its cozy warmth. I stared out the window and watched the sky transform to a deep amber, then through a sequence of fiery oranges. When the appearance of the sun itself was imminent, I ran back outside to join the others. As I watched the sun emerge from the earth, I felt as if I was witnessing a miracle, the birth of radiance, of light from darkness. As my heart expanded, tears of gratitude welled up in my eyes and spilled down my cheeks.

 
After the sun had taken its place in the rhythm of the day, I went back inside and gathered my pack. Before harnessing my bag, I stuffed my hands in my pockets, exploring the contents within. In the right pocket, tangerine lip balm, as usual. In the left pocket, two small, smooth stones. Assured that everything was in order, I heaved my backpack onto my shoulders and wandered out into the bright July morning.
I wandered up the well-worn dirt path that led through the town. I passed by the ruined 007_19stone houses that I had spent so much time wandering amongst the day before. The foxgloves turned their bright fuchsia faces to greet the sun, and I nodded my greeting to them as I passed. A trickle of pilgrims wandered past the church, past the modern houses and up into the mountains. On the outskirts of Foncebadon, I paused between two small ponds teeming with frogs and other wildlife. Delicate grasses grew on their shores, softening the edges and partially hiding smooth stones that were scattered here and there. Before continuing, I turned around to glance at Foncebadon. From that vantage point, it was hard to believe that a village existed there at all. I felt deeply glad that it was there, though, offering pilgrims a peaceful place to rest and contemplate their journey to the Iron Cross. I honored Foncebadon in my heart, and after a few moments I turned and continued walking.

 
I walked alone that morning, holding a stone in each hand. One stone was mine, the other for dear friends who had asked me to carry a stone for them. I walked very slowly, appreciating every step. I breathed deeply and drank in the morning light. I gathered my thoughts during the walk from Foncebadon to Cruz de Ferro. What do I want my stone to 001_13represent for me? What part of my life am I ready to release? What are my prayers? I whispered these questions to my stone as I walked. That morning, I encountered many familiar faces, and while I greeted fellow pilgrims, my attention never left my contemplation. The path wound higher and higher through the sparse trees along the stone-strewn trail.

 
Cruz de Ferro, the Iron Cross, is an unusual sacred place. A small iron cross is mounted atop a tall wooden pole, which is atop a mound of stones that’s more than ten feet high. The casual passerby would see just another Christian shrine along the Camino. But pilgrims know that this mound of stones is different. For centuries, pilgrims have carried stones to this place. An act more likened to Pagan tradition than Christian, pilgrims leave stones as a symbol of leaving their old lives behind. Some pilgrims pick up a stone along the way, and others carry a stone from home along the path to this place. A variety of rituals surround the surrendering of stones. Some pilgrims meditate in the fields next to the site, others climb instantly to the base of the cross and pray, some jovially take photographs with fellow pilgrims. But few pass this place without taking the time to honor their journey.

 
My eyes sought the Iron Cross, eagerly anticipating that first glimpse. Around every twist or turn, I hoped that its glorious image would appear on the horizon, but the trail followed the ridge in such a way that the shrine wasn’t visible until a pilgrim is upon it. Upon arriving at Cruz de Ferro, I was flooded with a wave of emotion so intense that it took my breath away. I walked around the base of the stone mound, trembling, barely holding back my tears. I squeezed my hands around the little stones within, taking in as much of the place as possible in those first few moments.

 
Along the Camino, there were many small shrines. Fields or steep hillsides were frequently covered with cairns, stones stacked in pillars. Fences were filled with twigs assembled in the shape of the cross. Notes were left on guideposts, held down by a stone, offering the finder wishes and prayers, but Cruz de Ferro was overwhelming. The stones were piled nearly fifteen feet high. Big stones, little stones. They somehow managed to remain stacked together solidly and the hill was sturdy enough to handle hundreds of pilgrims climbing it 033_46every day. Bigger stones tended to be further down on the mound, toward the bottom, and small stones and personal objects of every kind were offered at the base of the cross. The colorful array was deeply moving.

 
I walked to the meadow beside the cross and sat cross-legged, leaning against my backpack. The dry, brown grass was so tall that it was nearly over my head, but it was soft and cool. The wind rustled the leaves over my head, and the grass danced about, brushing up against me. A faint fragrance of pine filled the air. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, feeling the energy of the two small, warm stones that were encased in my hands. My mind was swimming with all the thoughts that had come to me during the morning’s walk. I first placed my attention on the stone I held for my dear friends. I imagined their faces and felt gratitude for their presence in my life. I felt honored that they had allowed me to carry this little stone, along with their prayers, to this sacred place. I asked the universe to bless them with joy, love, and abundance in every way possible as I held their small, greenish stone between both hands. I felt a wonderful warmth in the stone, and meditated as I held it. After a while, the energy shifted, and I placed their stone in my lap.

 
I picked up my stone. It was so small, so smooth, so round. It was beautiful. A smile spread across my face as I regarded the little stone, and I began to cry. I was alone, and I spoke out loud. I poured my heart out to my stone atop the highest mountain on the entire Camino. It was confession, it was prayer. It wasn’t poetic (or maybe it was) but it was pure and raw. I offered my entire heart and soul to that little stone, holding back nothing. I felt as if a raging river was rushing through me, beginning at the ground where I sat, and leaving through my words. When the words ran out, I sat in meditation for a while longer. Suddenly, I opened my eyes. I was ready to make my sacrifice to Cruz de Ferro. I left my pack in its place and walked in a straight line toward the cross. My pace was deliberate, focused. I felt pulled forward with each step. The tears welled up in my eyes, and I felt myself climbing the mound of stones to the base of the Iron Cross.

 

There were photographs pinned to the pole, prayers for friends and family who were ill or had passed on, letters, jewelry, images of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Some were new and colorful, others were faded and tattered from exposure to the elements. Surrounding these offerings were stones of every kind. There was so much powerful energy on top of that mound of stones. My lips quivered as the salty tears spilled down my face, and I could feel my stomach begin to clench, holding back the sobs. I walked counterclockwise around the pole, feeling slightly self-conscious about the fits of sobbing that could burst 030_28Aforth at any moment. There were three or four other pilgrims there, but I didn’t make eye contact with any of them. I breathed deeply, searching for the best place for my two little stones. I selected a spot on top of a large, flat stone right at the base of the pole and offered a final wave of emotion as I regarded the two little stones. They’re just rocks, I thought. Or are they? I drew in a quick breath and brought the stones to my lips, kissing them quickly. Then, I kneeled down to my chosen spot and placed the two stones there. I arranged them so that they were aesthetically pleasing, making sure that they wouldn’t easily be knocked aside. I nodded my head, and without a second glance I walked back down the way I came. I could barely see through the tears as I found my way to level ground. I walked quickly into the edge of the pine forest and immediately burst into gut-wrenching sobs. I sat down on the ground and cried and cried. The feeling was not merely of letting go of the past, but also of creating a new intention for my way of life. It was a formal dedication. I felt light and serene.

***

The rest of the morning was a blur. Though I felt a little spacey and lost, I found my backpack in the grass and prepared to go, but something about this place made compelled me to linger. Once I began walking, my step felt lighter, the air felt fresher, and my heart sang out with joy as I walked in the mountains. The cloudless blue sky was an intense contrast with the dry, sage-colored mountains. Prickly, scraggly plants grew in the dust in every direction, intermingling with sharp rocky outcroppings. These were the most unusual mountains I’d ever seen, a strange mix of the dry American southwest and the gentle, rolling Appalachians of Virginia. I loved them, and felt their love flowing back to me. After only a couple of kilometers, a few crumbling stone buildings appeared along the trail. Manjarin, whose albergue was rumored to be run by an eclectic Spanish saint.

 
As I approached, a loud bell rang out, momentarily drowning out the warped sounds of Gregorian chant that was being broadcast from an out-of-sight speaker. Manjarin was a beautiful village, even more ruined than Foncebadon. Many dilapidated stone ruins were nestled into the steep hillside, but two ancient structures remained intact. One building 015_19was the refugio, a tiny, dark building with mattresses scattered about, all covered with heavy woolen blankets. There was no electricity, and in the center of the room there was a wood stove, the only source of heat. I wandered toward the main building, which was bustling with pilgrims. Again, the loud bell rang out. Next to it stood a wiry-haired, wild-eyed older man, dressed in a t-shirt and flowing pants. He spoke quickly and loudly in Spanish, guiding several young men in various tasks. I inquired about the bathroom, and I was directed to the fields next to the refuge. No electricity and no bathroom.

 
I sat down at a long, wooden table. This space was protected from the elements by a very basic wooden roof and felt much like a porch. Coffee and cookies were provided, with a box for donations placed in the center of the table. For a while, I simply sat at the table, drinking coffee and attempting to ground myself for the day’s walk. I was snapped back from a moment of reverie as a woman approached me. I had noticed her earlier, and based on her body language and interactions with the odd bell-ringing man, I had gathered that she was his wife. She stopped beside me, smiling beatifically. She gazed at me intensely, looking directly into my eyes. She then bent down and gave me a kiss on the cheek, then turned and left. I was deeply touched by her kind gesture.
As I sat at the table, various members of my Camino family wandered in. Matthias, Gemma, and I went into the main building where there was a small shop. There were various pewter pendants hanging on red string, all symbols of the Camino: scallop shells, images of Saint James, gourds. To commemorate the day, I purchased a large scallop shell pendant with the image of Saint James on the inside.

 
Manjarin was an oasis in the mountains and I didn’t want to leave, but the day was young and I continued along the path. I quickly developed a headache. Was it from the coffee? From too much crying? It became worse as I walked, and I stopped many times. The mountain vistas were spectacular. I pushed on, walking alone for a while, then meeting friends along the path. After a few kilometers in the high mountains, the path 161steeply plunged into a small village. My heart kept trying to jump-start feelings of joy and happiness, but my head throbbed. I wandered into town and spotted a row of familiar backpacks outside a bar. I heaved mine onto the ground with the others and entered.

 
Food. That’s what I decided would cure my headache. They offered empanadas, which looked delicious, but the bartender informed me that they had just sold the last one. I ordered a Coke, paid, and sat down to sulk at a table with my friends. After looking over the menu, I settled upon a bocadillo con queso, half a baguette with slices of deliciously mild Spanish cheese. I ate part of the sandwich, which was dry and bland, and made my way back outside.

 
I wandered to the next town. My stomach began to churn as my headache pounded. I dropped my pack next to a stone wall that was shaded by an olive tree, and lay down beneath it. The town’s refuge was right across the street. I contemplated ending my day’s walk right there, but decided that a nap would help to clarify my decision. I drifted off into a dreamless sleep. I awoke and found two other pilgrims sitting near me on the stone wall, but I was feeling too miserable to engage in conversation with them. I wandered through the rest of the town and found Mette and Brigid reclining in the shade. We chatted for a few minutes, and I continued walking.

 
My headache continued to pound, and I stopped to relax in the shade of several very tall trees. The grass was soft and inviting, and the glade was perfectly serene. I dropped my pack and leaned back across it. My headache began to subside. Before long, I heard singing. Brigid approached, and she was walking alone. She joined me in the shade for a while, and shared stories from her childhood. My headache gradually disappeared. I lingered in the glade for a while after she left. The next part of the trail meandered through beautiful woods, and I wandered through a stand of giant chestnut trees.
The path emerged from the woods and the afternoon was very hot. My headache reappeared. The earth was red and a trail of dust billowed behind me. The scent of the dry, dusty earth mingled with hot pine, and the trail flanked narrow ridges. I walked with care, for the narrow trail was full of rocks and roots that could easily trip a pilgrim lost in thought. It was a long way down those steep cliffs.

 
The trail emerged alongside a crystal-clear river, and a charming village appeared. Molinaseca. A picturesque stone bridge led into the center of town, and in the river 004_20below, people were laughing and splashing in the water as they swam. A shout rang out from below, and Claire and Gemma waved to me as they waded into the river. The others were sitting in the grass nearby. My mind wandered to the sparkling stream, dreaming of the delight of immersing myself in ice-cold water after a hot day of walking. I met the others on the far side of the bridge. The refuge was full in Molinaseca. Even the porches and tents had been filled. The next refuge was in Ponferrada, over an hour’s walk away. I glanced down at my watch. It was already late in the afternoon, and the sun was roasting the dry earth, everywhere except on the banks of that cool river.

 
Suddenly I knew there was only one rational thing that helps in a moment of deliberation such as this: eat ice cream! I shed my backpack on the sidewalk next to a bar that offered helado con chocolate and as I walked back toward the river, I contemplated my options. I could walk to the next town, following my day’s walking plan, or abandon the plan completely and spend the rest of the day relaxing by the side of the river. Matthias, Tom, and Irina were planning on camping right there for the night. Gemma and Claire wanted to continue to Ponferrada.

 
In retrospect, I can clearly see that this day was pivotal. It was the day that my Camino family began to fall apart. It was inevitable, really. The fact that we had continued together for so long was extraordinary. I had walked with these people since I had met 014_31them in Najera three weeks before. Day after day, we has shared each other’s stories, often over a hearty dinner in a bar or town park. We had embraced each other’s joys and sorrows. We had nurtured and supported each other physically, emotionally, spiritually. The bond that formed between us is difficult to describe. We were bound by our common journey, by walking, by suffering, by laughter, by sweat, by tears, by moments in time that might appear rather ordinary under everyday circumstances. Like gazing at the sunrise. Or placing a stone at the base of an old shrine. With the trappings of modern life set aside, all of life became infinitely precious. Indeed, standing silently beside another human being, simply alive in the light of day was the greatest blessing. To walk in the company of others while becoming more and more deeply aware of this was profound and experiencing this depth of community for weeks along the Camino was a beautiful experience.

 
There seemed to be two choices at Molinaseca. The first seemed to beckon me to go with 010_14the flow, to luxuriate in the beauty of the moment. The second asked me to complete the task I’d set out to complete, to push on at any cost. I hardly noticed the deeper question that was presented to me in Molinaseca: will I choose now or will I choose then? Will I live in the moment or am I bound to the goal? My mind was reeling with heat and exhaustion and a lingering headache. I felt a deep connection with Claire and Gemma and I didn’t want to fall behind, succumbing to my feared role as The Slowest Pilgrim. I listened to my mind, not my heart. Then, I heaved my pack onto my sunburned shoulders and began walking toward Ponferrada.

Conscious Revolution

Step back in time with me for a moment.  Imagine that we are poised at the edge of the first signs of mass conversion to an agrarian society, while most have lived as hunter-gatherers pretty much forever.  While the hunter-gatherer way of life is certainly a difficult one, requiring people to follow the source of food with the seasonal changes and migrations, it is woven into our survival instinct to literally go with the flow.  The hunter-white-tailed-eagle-2015098_1920gatherer way of life requires strength, stamina, agility, sharp senses, and perseverance, the likes of which most of us living in western society cannot even imagine.  A way of life is a way of life until a revolutionary idea is introduced, one that changes not only the daily experience of living in terms of what we do, but also how we think, what we believe, and who we are.

Introduce revolutionary idea #1:  the seed. 

The transition from being hunter-gatherers to an agrarian way of life upended everything that had comprised human living for millenia.  While I acknowledge and honor the few remaining cultures that still practice hunter-gatherer lifeways, the reality is that the agrarian revolution swept in strong, and pushed people to adapt to a new way of life that was vastly different from all that had ever been known before.  As people came to understand that they could cultivate certain plants that were known to be a good source of nourishment, and that they could domesticate certain animals as well, the hunter-gatherer way of life gave way to visions of abundant food sources that were easier to acquire, and more consistently available.  Humans are clever animals, and the maize-264520_1920idea of making life a little easier by any means possible was likely as strong then as it is now.  The strong movement toward settlement and agriculture certainly bumped up against the dominant culture of the time, and over time, the agricultural movement won out.  It’s easy in our post-industrial age of technology to assume that movement away from a nomadic lifestyle and toward civilization was an improvement.  Yet, I invite you to stay open and consider that all change comes with both positive and negative effects, depending on who you ask.

Revolutionary idea #2:  the machine. 

Farming is hard work.  It is very physical labor, and demands long days of work throughout all growing seasons.  It is not foolproof, and climate, weather, pests, and infections can demolish an entire region’s crops, leaving farmers with little capacity to do anything about it.  While agriculture may have been more consistent in providing food than the life of a hunter-gatherer much of the time, there remained so many unknown factors, and life was still hard.  The resilience and ingenuity of the human rusty-185531_1920spirit continued to seek ways to make existence easier, and the brightest minds began to create ways to do more than ever possible with our bodies and minds alone.  Machines, from simple to complex, began to appear, and the movement toward making life easier blossomed.  Machines to help with agriculture, to communicate, to travel ~ and machines to entertain and amuse us, too.  Along with this shift toward machines and automation came immense changes in lifestyle, and the busyness of the human mind was stirred in new ways.  With machines came the speeding up of life, and we are still living within the scope of this today.

Imagine what it was like as these ways of life emerged alongside each other, bumping against each other, causing conflict as human values and ideas diverged.  Imagine the new, enthusiastic farmer fighting the fierce, enduring hunter-gatherer, in the throes of conflict over which way of life would dominate.  Imagine the new, enthusiastic inventor, eager to convince the old-fashioned farmer that there were newer, faster, and better ways of doing things, and that life could be so much more than just labor.  Imagine what each one would feel:  the new way of life teeming with possibility, knowing deep down that life wants to diversify, change, and morph in new and unexpected ways.  And imagine the old way of life, determined to defend what is known and tested, threatened with becoming obsolete, certain that things were just fine as they had been, tried and true.  Can you feel the righteous indignation in each side of the conversation?

Revolutionary idea #3:  ???

It seems to me that we are sitting on the edge of another massive turning point.  There are many who believe that things are fine as they have been, and those people are prepared to defend their way of life with full force.  But now we are also in the unique position of seeing the results of our choices, and the damage done through the advancement of the age of machines.  And there are many of us standing on the front lines of the next revolution, knowing that change is ripe, and that the time is now.  We time-2105690_1920know that we must change many things:  our unsustainable choices through the use of destructive technologies; the damaging belief systems that oppress and harm so many people; the attachment to a way of life that favors some living beings over others, and stacks the cultural systems in favor of that.  What is true as we stand here on this evolutionary battle ground is that change is coming, and the battle is raging because those changes are coming fast, and there is much to defend, and much to lose.

I look into the eyes of the great great grandfather of my great great grandfather, and I see a warrior, a strong man who has done his best to survive and provide for his people.  He is courageous and determined because his way of life has demanded it, and as he sees the beginning of the end of his way of life, he will defend it with everything he’s got.  In my heart, I feel great compassion for him, as I feel the anguish and devastation that comes in his knowing that everything he has known is on the chopping block.  My heart fills with compassion.

And I look into the eyes of those who are politically and socially in opposition to everything I value, the conservatives in my country who celebrate victory in what is to me horrific injustice, pure ignorance, and hateful divisiveness.  My ideas about environmental preservation at all costs are a threat to the machine culture that has brought such success.  My idchildren-1822701_1920eas about social justice, equality, and human rights are a threat to the traditional values that they cannot understand, and often have no desire to understand.  I truly want my culture to dismantle nearly everything in the minds and lifeways of these people, and they are committed to defending that with all their power.  To feel like everything that you have known and trusted is on the chopping block, pushed toward extinction – I imagine that is a terrifying proposition, and no one will go quietly into the night of history without a good fight for what they believe in.

We are facing this revolution right now.  We can’t name it yet, as it is still too fresh.  The fierce force of change will come anyway, though the resistance is strong.  All that is born shall surely die, all that rises shall fall.  And yet, in this moment, I am finding a new depth of compassion for those whose ways of life are threatened.  How vast is the heart, that it can hold the conviction of necessary change, with the certainty that the trajectory of transformation is exactly as it should be, while also holding deep understanding and empathy for the longing of those who no longer know the world in which they live, the landscape of culture and tradition utterly new?

For those of us riding the wave of change, celebrating it, I want to invite you to join me in beach-2089936_1920a place of understanding and compassion for those who do not agree or wish for this process to unfold.  The way we approach this revolution will certainly affect the outcome, as well as modeling a new way of being that is more in alignment with the greater good.  This time, the revolution must become conscious.

Beyond Nice

I grew up in the south, and learned from an early age that “nice little girls are to be seen and not heard.”  My grandmother’s words still echo in my psyche, and as a small child I was determined to do the best I could to live up to her expectations.  Those were the StockSnap_0IS0OJTQN1same expectations that I found as I entered school, for the reality is that nice children are polite to others, treat their teachers with respect and deference, do what they’re told, raise their hands, and work very, very hard to get everything right.  From grades to behavior to social roles, from a very early age we are indoctrinated into a way of being that is the one preferred by those around us – parents, communities, schools, religions.

Nice is one of those words, sticky sweet and kind of bland, grayscale, obedient.

Nice:  pleasing, agreeable ~ a nice time; a nice person

I’ll be the first one to say that having a certain base level of respect offered to others is the foundation of any meaningful human relationship, and in order to meet others with differing views in the world, maintaining a certain degree of respect is a good thing.  Having a strong sense of self-respect is also fundamentally valuable, as it gives each of us an inner sense of the old adage, “do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.”  We can only give others the same respect that we carry within ourselves, and we do StockSnap_PJW9WOUH16ultimately treat others the way we treat ourselves.  But there is a real difference between respect and nice.  Respect says, I know you are being a total asshole right now, and I’m not going to go there with you because I respect myself too much to follow you down that low.  Nice says, Oh, I better keep smiling here and nodding my head and agreeing with whatever you say, otherwise you might somehow reject me, and even though you’re being an asshole right now, I need to stay on your good side because I can’t bear the thought of having people dislike me, or even worse, consider me their opponent.  

Fuck nice. 

After a lifetime of trying to be all things to all people, I gave it all up.  I decided instead to find out who I am, to learn what I truly love, to discover what my true values are, and to follow my own inner compass.  Along the way, I learned that many of those things included in being a “nice girl” are stifling, and require me to put myself dead last in pretty much everything.  And while this kind of Donna Reed style paradigm was certainly the norm in white middle America’s golden age during the 1950s, where woman-s-legs-high-heels-vintage-car-turquoise-90767women’s lives were relegated to mothering and house making, looking pretty and keeping it all together so that their husbands always come home to a place that met every one of their needs for comfort and care.  After centuries of oppression, the 1950s were indeed the swan song of “nice.”

But, as we’re seeing today more than at any time in recent history, oppression doesn’t die fast or willingly.  If you’re black in America and don’t toe the “nice” line just the right way, you may end up beaten or shot by a cop.  If you’re a woman in America and don’t toe the “nice” line just the right way, they will threaten to dismantle your healthcare and reintroduce abhorrent legislation, doing their best to remind you of your proper place in society:  barefoot, pregnant, and subservient.  If you’re Latino or Muslim in America, even if you toe the “nice” line in just the right way, there is no such thing as “nice” enough.  For those power-hungry fools at the helm of American government right now, there is no such thing as “nice” enough that doesn’t forego all progress that has been made, and anything short of devolving back into that golden era when everyone knew their proper place will be upon the chopping block.

While American conservatives are often the ones playing the “nice” card hard and fast, at least for appearances, they are rarely guilty of actual “nice” in the way I was taught.  When is the last time a rich, white Republican put himself dead last in considering the best path of action?  More often, that rich, white Republican puts himself – and his cronies – dead first in considering the best path of action, namely what will give him a rise in power or pocketbook.  But everyone else had better play nice, and recognize their place in the right social order as declared by God himself…

Which brings me right back to fuck nice.

It seems to me that moderate to progressive Democrats have spent way way way too much time playing “nice” in these political games.  Is it because they truly possess such vast and abiding respect that they simply are unwilling to meet their political opponents in the game?  Are they so totally and completely bought, by and large, that they are StockSnap_1CB98C9DF8merely playing “nice” to their backers, trying not to rock the boat so that the playing field at least appears “nice” to the vast majority of supporters?  Are they trying to maintain some stiff upper lip sense of decorum, not wanting to be too subversive or progressive, fearing that the more moderate among their supporters will flip sides, choosing a more moderate Republican party?  What’s clear right now is that we have one party who has fully abandoned any attempt at playing “nice,” and the other seems to be standing in the wings, still holding on to their passionless, accommodating agreeableness, with a hope and a prayer that something can be done about it.

When the Democratic party awakens to a sense of passion, purpose, and fierceness equal to that of the Republican party that is now making a mockery of our democracy, there will be a lot more people who wake up and participate in the shaping of the nation.  “Nice” just won’t do.  It’s time for more and more of us to shake off the shackles of our own upbringing and cultural conditioned propensity toward “nice” and speak our truth, StockSnap_M2CUPBNKTAstand for what is right, and be the hands, feet, mouths, minds, and hearts of a total revolution.  Revolution does not come from fearing who might be offended by the changes that are needed.  For real, who in the current administration is holding on to the tiniest bit of fear that their actions or values might offend anyone?  Voldemort himself sits there, posing for the camera with his puckered, boastful grin, proud of the atrocities he stands for, and hungry for the next, giving little consideration of the vast needs and perspectives of Americans.  It’s his way, his agenda, his values, and his preferences alone that guide him.  My Democratic friends, my progressive friends, it’s time that we embrace the very same unapologetic, bold, fearless, and righteous stance, adding a degree of grace and dignity, and take a stand for what we value, what is right and just, and what is in the best interest of ALL people.

The master weapon we must engage in this revolution?  Passion, boldness, fearlessness, courage, and purpose are all fundamental, but underlying all of these is compassion:  the response to the suffering of others that motivates a desire to help them.  While “nice” is tainted with a sense of obligatory duty, a hidden agenda, or a lack of sincerity, pexels-photo-235478compassion is filled with heart and a desire to act from kindness.  While we’re in the middle of this crazy, chaotic revolution, it only behooves us to embrace the way of being we want to bring into the world, modeling it as we go.  “Nice” tells us to walk on eggshells, and to continue trying to convince our opponents with logic and reason why things are going to hell in a handbasket right now.  Compassion sees all sides of the situation, understands the challenges we humans face when we must change, and wisely holds the mutual suffering we all share… and then stands up courageously and creates the pathway forward that is in the name of truth and justice for all, and especially for the disenfranchised.  “Nice” wants us to be all things to all people, obedient like good puppies, and smiling as the house is burning to the ground.  Compassion wants us to be true to our own deepest wisdom, persistent and strong in the face of any challenges, and always anchored in the heart.

As much as I truly loved my grandmother, her vision of nice little girls needs to be fully and completely retired.  Any semblance of the golden age of the 1950s must be updated and purged from the culture.  We must revise not only our outward appearances, but our inner belief systems and structures that keep these old, dead paradigms still running in the background, half-conscious but persistent.  We have continued far too long as a culture dominated by white pseudo-Christian men, and they will not be dethroned without kicking and screaming, to be sure.  But just as any good parent would do with a pexels-photo-345092misguided child, we must model a new paradigm, continuing to point out the errors, and insisting upon broader understanding and greater wisdom in the shaping of our country.

Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.   ~ Frederick Douglass